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John Isner refines his mental strategy

John Isner is thinking that this time it's for real. This time, the message not only penetrated and paid off, it burned itself onto his hard drive in a way that he won't forget -- in a way that could lead him, by his own estimation, into the top 10 or even the top 5.

Reflecting on the nature of his critical four-set win over Roger Federer in Davis Cup play last weekend -- a triumph that essentially broke the resistance of the Swiss team even before Team USA clinched with a win in doubles -- Isner said in a conference call Thursday: "I think it's really clicked for me now."

He was talking about the theory, widely held by everyone from his Davis Cup captain Jim Courier to the uncertified local pros down at the public courts behind the high school, that in order to break through and become a Grand Slam contender, Isner needs to play with unrelenting aggression. He needs to pursue "first-strike or strike-out" tennis, eschewing those fabled "margins for error" and ending points as soon as he's in a reasonable position to do so -- even if that means rolling the die far more often than is common in today's safety-conscious baseline hugging game.

"Captain Courier was on my back all week [in Switzerland], and I told myself, 'I'm only going to beat this guy [Federer] if I play the right way,'" Isner said.

This wasn't exactly a smack-the-forehead realization. Isner's coach, Craig Boynton, has been preaching the same gospel all along. It's hard to say why a tennis player (or anyone else) can allow advice to go in one ear and out the other, seemingly forever, before he experiences some sort of Eureka! moment and embraces the idea. But any coach will tell you that it sometimes takes a very long time for a player to truly absorb and act on a good idea, even a startlingly simple one -- if he does so at all.

And let's face it, we've been down this road before with the 26-year-old former Georgia Bulldog. It's not that he's let us down -- Isner has made steady progress in the rankings and now sits at a career-best No. 14. It's more a question of his ability to sustain over the course of five or six matches what in the end is a very demanding style of play.

The aggressive big man (Isner is 6-foot-9), whose game plan hinges on a big serve and putting enormous pressure on more versatile and nimble opponents, needs to be explosive and constantly prepared to strike. He can't afford to sit back and see where the flow of a point takes him. That preemptive "big-man tennis" (as Boyton, and others, describe it) requires tremendous concentration and resistance to disappointment.

"You need to be very intense, mentally," Isner said. "You can't afford loose points or loose games. It's a mental and emotional effort. I'm trying hard to be really professional, which to me means staying as intense as possible every single match."

Isner sounded like he's dedicated to the effort, and he's also trying to keep his win over the all-time Grand Slam champion in perspective. "I didn't necessarily string together five great matches in a row. I went over there and played one great match. But I'll take confidence from that."

Now ranked No. 2 behind Mardy Fish on the U.S. form chart, Isner will have a chance to show that he can sustain that elusive intensity for a regular tournament's full menu of matches in a week in Memphis, where will be top seeded at an ATP 500 event for the first time.