- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 10, 2008

It took only one match before John Isner realized he belonged at last summer’s Legg Mason Tennis Classic. After dispatching Tim Henman in three sets, the 22-year-old experienced an epiphany.

“Right then and then and there, I knew I was capable of beating a lot more people,” Isner said. “I was a little nervous before the match, but I got it out after a couple serves.”

Few knew Isner before that opening-round victory over Henman, then ranked No. 73 in the world and winner of the Legg Mason in 2003. After all, last August’s tournament was the second ATP event for the 6-foot-9 North Carolina native, who was two months removed from an NCAA team title at the University of Georgia.

That all changed over the course of the next week, when he shocked Germany’s Benjamin Becker and Tommy Haas, South Africa’s Wayne Odesnik and France’s Gael Monfils en route to a finals showdown with fellow American and tournament favorite Andy Roddick.

Although Isner fell to Roddick in two sets, his breakthrough into the sport’s consciousness was underway. In six weeks on the ATP Tour, Isner had leapfrogged 646 spots in the tour rankings and set a tour record with 144 aces at the Legg Mason.

“My best memories are from last year’s tournament,” Isner said Thursday after finishing the Countrywide Classic in Los Angeles. “I am looking forward to going back.”

Since his wonderful week at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center, Isner has faced Roger Federer in the U.S. Open, teamed with Mardy Fish to win a doubles title at Newport and climbed as high as No. 81 in the tour rankings.

It has been a busy first year for the lanky right-hander, who honed his serve slamming balls against his garage door in Greensboro, N.C. Isner first learned the game from his older brother Jordan at age 8. All through middle school, John split his time between the North Carolina Tennis Academy and the AAU basketball circuit.

At age 14, he faced a two-paths-converged-in-a-wood conundrum. To the misfortune of anyone who has ever felt the wrath of his 130-mph serve, Isner chose hard court over hardwood.

“I thought I had a better chance of earning a college scholarship in tennis than in basketball,” Isner said. “I don’t play [basketball] much anymore, but I do miss it. I wonder how good I could have been had I stuck with it. I think I could have played in college.”

After cheering for N.C. State during his childhood - Jordan; John’s eldest brother, Nathan; and his father, Robert, are all N.C. State alumni - Isner ventured outside the state. He chose Georgia for its “awesome” campus, dominant tennis program and relative proximity to home.

Isner narrowly missed the doubles title as a freshman, won it as a sophomore in 2004 and led the Bulldogs to the NCAA title his senior year. During his final two years in Athens, Ga., the team lost twice, and Isner spent a majority of the time as the country’s top singles player.

He also developed a reputation as somewhat of a merry prankster, once dousing a team trainer’s toothbrush in hot sauce from a Mexican restaurant during a road trip.

“I squeezed it all over the bristles,” Isner said. “Most of the stuff I do now, I can’t say on the record.”

Isner’s serve is just as sickening as any combination of Old El Paso and Oral B.

Roddick said Isner doesn’t so much serve as he spikes the ball, alluding to how Isner’s height allows him to rain down serves on smaller opponents.

“Obviously it’s one of the best serves out there,” said Donald Young, who has served as Isner’s doubles partner. “It’s coming down from a higher trajectory than any other serve. It’s right up there at the top of the tour.”

Isner slammed 66 aces last September at Flushing Meadows, N.Y., including 18 against Federer.

He said he approached his match against Federer just like he would any other. He stretched. He ate a “decent meal.” He hit some serves. He relaxed by listening to country music on his iPod. Then he strode out to center court of Arthur Ashe Stadium and heard 20,000 people chanting his name.

“That was really neat,” Isner said. “I never expected to be playing him, but there is nothing bigger than being out there with him on center court.”

He will return to Queens, N.Y., this year, even if it means missing his beloved Bulldogs’ season-opener against Georgia Southern on Aug. 30. Isner is a rabid Georgia football fan and believes Mark Richt’s team can run the table this season.

“We have to navigate the schedule and win the SEC East,” Isner said. “The Georgia-Florida game is going to be huge.”

Until kickoff, Isner has one thing on his mind - going one step further in the District. He has seen all the monuments and memorials. He made the rounds at the White House and met the president after the Bulldogs’ national championship in 2007. He has attended a Washington Capitals game.

So does an open agenda mean a win in his second visit to FitzGerald Center?

“Yeah,” Isner said. “That’s the plan.”

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