John Isner won the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship in Houston on Sunday, on the same surface -- red clay -- where all of the ATP action up to and including the French Open will take place over the next two months. Ordinarily, that would be a great sign going into the first big clay-court Masters 1000 event of the year in Monte Carlo.
Isner, No. 23 in the rankings before Houston, has struggled. He was a disappointing 7-8 on the year going in, despite the home-nation advantage afforded by the two big hard-court Masters events, Indian Wells and Miami. Isner must have breathed an enormous sigh of relief Sunday after he posted wins on successive days over No. 3 seed Juan Monaco and top-seeded Nicolas Almagro -- both clay-court experts. After the surprisingly uneventful 6-3, 7-5 win (what, an Isner match and no tiebreakers?), Isner said this:
"I've always known I could play well on clay. This week is a little surprising, as Monday was the first day I hit a ball on clay since September. I knew it was going to be a tough adjustment and that I had to find a way to get through my first match. I felt I played better each and every round. I played well yesterday [against Monaco in the semis] and even better [in the final] today."
So should U.S. fans be doing cartwheels now that Isner seems to have broken out of his slump and has asked for -- and received -- a wild card into Monte Carlo? After all, he's put up some impressive results on clay. Last year in Davis Cup matches, he had best-of-five red-clay wins over, among others, Roger Federer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon. He was a finalist on dirt in Belgrade in 2010 (lost to countryman Sam Querrey). And who can forget his second-round battle with top-seeded Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros in 2011? Isner was up two sets to one and lost 6-4 in the fifth set.
The trouble is that Isner seems reluctant to embrace the challenge of European red clay. This is the first year that he'll be playing Monte Carlo. Even if he's asked to go out and compete while jet-lagged and (presumably) somewhat fatigued from his run in Houston, getting right back on the clay -- and staying there for the duration -- might be a good for his game as well as a welcome sign for those who don't think he's really done enough to exploit his abilities in clay in Europe.
Last year, Isner won exactly two tournament matches during the Euroclay season. He beat Philipp Kohlschreiber in Rome -- a good win given that the German was ranked No. 24 at the time and is a gifted, versatile player who grew up on the red clay. The lowlight, of course, was that painful 18-16 fifth-set loss to 30-year-old Paul-Henri Mathieu in the second round at Roland Garros.
As years go, it was actually better than some. Isner is a combined 8-10 at the three major Euroclay tournaments: Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros. He's had back-to-back wins just twice in those 10 tournaments. It isn't merely his record that's wanting -- it's his attendance record.
Unfortunately, this isn't just an Isner problem -- it's an American male singles player problem. Somewhere along the way, at right about the time Andy Roddick came on the scene, the U.S. men seemed to get discouraged and gave up on even trying to do well in Europe. It wasn't that hard a decision to make, given that the majority of the tournaments on the calendar are hard-court events.
But it's a shame to see a player whose game is quietly and counterintuitively suited to clay give up on the stuff (the slower surface tends to mitigate Isner's relatively laborious movement, as it has for many tall, powerful men). A good, long dose of red clay might be just what Isner needs right about now. Americans have grown too accustomed to losing on red clay, but it still remains a great surface on which to find your game -- as Isner learned in Houston last week.