John Isner serves to Rogerio Dutra Silva during their second-round match.
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By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
PARIS -- John McEnroe experienced it. So did Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick. It can be pretty lonely coming into Roland Garros as your nation's main contender and, just a few days into the tournament, find out that only one of your male compatriots is left.
But that is John Isner's fate at the French Open as of Wednesday night, as he and qualifier Jesse Levine are the only two U.S. men left in the draw. The gritty qualifier Levine will be an underdog in his match against the Canadian sensation Milos Raonic. But the 10th-seeded Isner will be a substantial favorite against France's Paul-Henri Mathieu.
Mardy Fish admittedly had some trouble being the top U.S. guy when he passed Andy Roddick in the rankings last year. Isner seems to relish being America's top seed, but whether or not he can succeed in that spot has yet to be seen.
"I guess there's probably a little more pressure. I'm trying not to feel it, though," he said. "Being the No. 1 American at this tournament, I guess there are a little bit more eyes on me, but it's a spot that I'm very happy that I'm in right now. I want to be in this spot for a long, long time. I want to be the No. 1 American. I want to be in the top 10 in the world. I hope that any time a Slam comes around I will be seeded top 10. This is the first time I have been seeded this high, and I really want to prove myself here."
He is in a reasonable quarter of the draw where he can do some serious damage, as Andy Murray is the highest seed at No. 4, but he has had a tough few months and has never been a dominator on clay. No. 5 David Ferrer is also in his quarter, and he very much knows how to play on clay, but he can be beaten on the surface and has trouble at Roland Garros, never having reached the semifinals.
There are enough openings for Isner to drive a truck through, if he shows the level that led him to spectacular European clay-court wins in Davis Cup over Roger Federer, Gilles Simon and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
"I don't mind clay. I don't care what surface I'm playing on. I don't care if it's mud," said Isner after his 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Rogerio Dutra Silva. "My serve is my serve. I like to think I'm gonna hold serve a lot. Whether it's clay, grass or hard, I'm always gonna have that on my side. But besides from that, a lot of times the ball bounces higher, which is good for me, obviously, with me being so tall."
With Fish resting at home recovering from a medical procedure on his heart, Roddick in poor form due to a lack of play and injuries, Donald Young in a slump, Sam Querrey still working on his comeback, and 20-year-old Ryan Harrison maybe a year away from making a huge impact at a Slam, the 6-foot-9-inch Isner is "the man" in U.S. tennis. That’s a lot of pressure for the 27-year-old to take on, but he's pretty easy going and level-headed. Plus he has major weapons.
"People obviously talk about his serve, which is arguably the best in tennis, and his kicks are just phenomenal," U.S. Player Development chief and ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said. "But he’s got one of the biggest forehands in the men’s game, and if he has a little time to set it up, it’s a pretty devastating shot. So that combination of that one-two punch is huge.
"He’s improved his backhand and his backhand return. I love what he was able to do in Davis Cup with his coach, Craig Boynton, and Jim Courier in his ear about being more offensive on second-serve returns. He’s got to do that. He’s not going to out-run Nadal or Djokovic and Murray or any of these guys on clay, or a Federer. But he can out-hit them, and his movement has gotten better, and his fitness is obviously better."
Last year, Isner became the first man to take six-time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal to five sets in the first round. This year, not only did he show up big in Davis Cup, but he also shocked No. 1 Novak Djokovic at Indian Wells.
After reaching the final of Houston, he did not have a great European clay season, taking tight early-round losses to Marin Cilic in Madrid, to Andreas Seppi at Rome and to Nikolay Davydenko in Nice. He almost never loses by a big margin, but he has yet to develop enough consistency to be able to bring his "B" game on court and scratch out wins against good players. His level can rise to match the best or sink well below what he is capable of.
"As dangerous as he is against the top players, he’s also vulnerable to losing to pretty much anyone, meaning someone that can hit a lot of balls and make a lot of shots," McEnroe said. "I believe he could be playing in the final weekend at the French and a men’s final four. I think he’s got the game to go that far. But if he’s not careful, he could also go out in the first round."
Mathieu is talented and French, which means he'll have the support of the home crowd, but he’s just coming off injuries and is not the player that he was a few years ago. Isner's third-round opponent could be a fine, rising Spanish player, Marcel Granollers. Then he might have to face Ferrer, who can run just about anyone into the ground. A match against Murray in the quarters would mean facing one of the world's best return of servers.
And the semis? That would more than likely be the brick wall, Nadal. Let's not even go there yet.
"I guess that I have proven that I am capable of beating the top guys in the world. Beating Federer and beating Djokovic here have been huge for my confidence," Isner said. "For me at these big events, it's all about getting through the early rounds. Once I do that, I start to get more comfortable.
"I'm not scared of anyone, but I know at the same time every match is so tough. If I blink just for a second, I could be out in the second round here. So the ultimate goal is to be in a Slam final. I do believe I can do it. I'm going to go out there and try and do it."