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Seen and heard: Isner looks to rebound

PARIS -- John Isner rifled a big serve in practice Sunday, but Michael Russell went one better: He sent a forehand crosscourt return for a clean winner, then raised his arm in celebration. One or two fans courtside clapped, and Russell let out a smile.

Isner's opponents the past two months have been doing a lot of smiling.

The momentum that Isner gained in Indian Wells, when he downed Novak Djokovic, and on clay in the Davis Cup, when he overcame Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, has since dissipated. With so much expected from Isner on dirt, he proceeded to go 2-3 in Madrid, Rome and Nice. Remember, too, that Isner extended Rafael Nadal to five sets at Roland Garros last year.

Even if he lost to two players in the top 30 and a former top-five regular in Nikolay Davydenko, they were all matches he would have backed himself to win.

As he walked back to the players' pavilion after hitting with Russell, Isner admitted his confidence isn't as high as it was.

"But it's good," Isner began.

It hasn't dipped?

"I have dipped a little bit, but I'm starting to get it back up," he added. "I just had a good practice. It all starts with practice."

The real test comes Monday, when Isner encounters Brazilian Rogerio Dutra Silva in the first round. On paper, Isner should cruise. His recent results may, though, give the qualifier hope.

Isner's slump, in his words, is "hard to explain."

"It's not like I didn't put in the work," Isner said. "I did. A lot of times my matches hinge on a few points here and there, and I guess I'm not winning those points. But this is the one I came here for, and my match [Monday] is very important. If I can get through the first one, I'll start to feel better."

In an interview last year, Isner said he was tentative on break points. Now, he's more aggressive.

"I guess I made a conscious decision to step up and go for it, whether I hit a winner or hit the back fence in the air," he said.

Yet in his defeats in Madrid, Rome and Nice, he went a combined 2-for-12. Not as good as it has to be.

Isner's session in the sun unfolded under the watchful eye of his coach, Craig Boynton. U.S. Davis Cup captain Jim Courier was also on hand, and he chatted with Isner during a break.

The emergence of Brian Baker might give Courier something to ponder when the U.S. visits Spain in the Davis Cup semifinals in September. That series is sure to be played on clay, and the U.S. needs a No. 2 in singles behind Isner.

Isner had nothing but praise for Baker, who reached the final in Nice as a qualifier. The 27-year-old was off the tour from the end of 2007 to the middle of 2011, hampered by one injury after another.

"It's very inspiring to see, what he's been through, to see him overcome that," Isner said. "I think all of us wish him the best and are all happy for him."

The kids need warming up, too

They did jumping jacks, circuits and laps around Suzanne Lenglen stadium before play began. No, it wasn't players warming up, but a wave of ball kids readying for opening day.

Decked out in orange T-shirts, blue shorts and orange caps, the young troops were put through their paces by an instructor that looked more like an orchestra conductor. A few even cloned David Ferrer waiting to receive serve, bobbing up and down.

"Je suis fatigue," one of the ball kids said with a laugh. Translation: "I'm tired."

The balls kids do a fabulous job throughout the tournament, usually going unnoticed. Last year, however, Viktor Troicki wasn't pleased when one collected a ball with the point still in progress.

Twelve months later

A year ago, Bethanie Mattek-Sands entered the French Open ranked 34th. A quarterfinalist in Madrid (when it was red clay), she barely missed a seeding.

But the colorful Mattek-Sands, who faces Sabine Lisicki in the first round, wasn't close to being seeded this year.

A right shoulder injury sent her ranking -- and spirits -- tumbling at the end of last year, so much so that she contemplated retiring, her husband, Justin Sands, said Sunday. She decided to stick it out.

Her body still isn't cooperating, though, with hip and back problems forcing Mattek-Sands to withdraw from Doha, Memphis, Indian Wells, Miami and Charleston. She's down to 167th, which makes Mattek-Sands the U.S. No. 15.

Justin Sands speculated that his wife would probably need a wild card just to land in Wimbledon qualifying.

A roaring start

It was nearing 11 a.m. in Paris when an almighty roar came from the heavens. The players practicing stopped and looked skyward, catching a glimpse of jets flying above the grounds.

The "flyover" marked the opening of the tournament, and French colors of red, white and blue filled the air.