It's hard to decide what's been more shocking at Indian Wells so far. Andre Agassi's below-the-belt Hit for Haiti? The slew of upsets in the women's draw? Rafael Nadal's shorts? Take your pick. I'm going with Rafa's shorts. Surely he could have just told Nike, "These are hideous, no?"
But one man, at least, has stood tall above the chaos, an unflappable competitor who has quietly, yet quickly, become the tour's most promising player. Even just a year ago, he wasn't considered much more than a big serve in size-15 sneakers, a 6-foot-9 sideshow who'd take his place next to Ivo Karlovic. Now, John Isner is ranked a career-high No. 20 in the world, with a realistic eye at cracking the top 10.
Isner's improvement has been nothing short of spectacular. With a cannon for a serve, he could have easily decided to coast on his one big shot, serving aces and picking up enough ranking points here and there to become a respectable journeyman (and a punch line). Then, in March 2009, Isner hired a new coach, Craig Boynton, who has refashioned the big man's game. Boynton's directions for Isner have been as simple as they've been effective: Get in better shape and then build your game around your two strengths, the serve and forehand. Instead of trying to get Isner to develop explosive movement and a forceful backhand, two things he will never have, Boynton has helped Isner maximize his strengths and given his opponents fewer opportunities to exploit his weaknesses.
Isner used that game plan to knock off his buddy, and another American young gun, Sam Querrey, at Indian Wells this week, 7-6, 6-4. It was a nervy match decided by just one break of serve, and Isner never wavered. "I wanted to win this one pretty bad, and fortunately for me I went out there and played really well," he said after the match.
As he also proved during his two Davis Cup matches against Serbia recently, Isner can crush his forehand harder than anyone else on tour. Although he tends to hit it inside-out, a predictable pattern that his opponents might eventually take advantage of, he can control -- and end -- the rally with his forehand. His main challenge, due to his altitudinous frame, is getting his feet far enough away from the ball so he can hit it without getting jammed. He's also not the greatest of volleyers, and though he has a nice touch at net, Isner's technique on the volley often leads to ugly unforced errors.
It's all the more reason he'll want to stay glued to the backhand side of the court banging forehands for his next match in Indian Wells. He'll face Nadal for the first time. A year ago, Isner wouldn't have had the consistent firepower off the ground or the fitness to mount a real challenge. He'll still likely be overmatched, especially if Nadal gets him moving from side to side, but Isner now has the tools and confidence to win. Or, at the very least, to make Nadal feel mighty uncomfortable in those shorts.