John Isner won his second title in as many weeks in Atlanta on Sunday, a victory that boosted the 32-year-old up to No. 18 in the ATP rankings. With the win, Isner will also head the pack of American players preparing for the US Open.
Is Isner's talent once again coming to a boil, or is this just a testament to his talent for plucking low-hanging fruit? True, he all but has a permanent reservation in the Atlanta final: He has reached seven of eight since the tournament began, and come away with wins on four occasions. But no victories come easily these days.
"This tournament has meant everything to me," Isner told the crowd after he dispatched fellow American Ryan Harrison in the final. "This is always going to be my favorite time of year."
The 6-foot-10 bombardier endured the soggy heat to craft his win on the hard courts of the ATP Atlanta 250 event, but the achievement germinated weeks ago in London thanks to two unrelated events.
First, Isner gave himself a good tongue-lashing -- with help from his support team -- following his second-round loss at Wimbledon to fellow 32-year-old Dudi Sela. At No. 74, Selas was ranked 52 places behind Isner. Sela is scrappy but short on power -- and more than a foot shorter than Isner.
Isner told the Atlanta media that following the loss to Sela, he left the court ashamed by how "scared" and "tentative" he'd been throughout. He got caught hoping that Sela would lose the match by making mistakes, rather than imposing his own smothering game on the Israeli player. That's the same Sela whom Isner tagged in the 2014 Atlanta final.
But Isner called the Wimbledon loss a "blessing in disguise" because it led to the hour-long pow-wow at his rented house that rekindled his drive. He hasn't lost a match since.
The second factor in Isner's transformation is more intriguing, and more pertinent with the US Open looming less than a month away. That was 29-year-old Sam Querrey's praiseworthy performance at Wimbledon, an effort that powered him to the semifinals -- one round further than Isner has ever reached at a Grand Slam event.
Querrey success became a burr under Isner's saddle. Isner didn't begrudge his friend's run, but as he said in Atlanta, "That spurred me on a little for sure. I am very, very happy for him, but I wanted to get up to the level that he was playing at. I think I've done that."
Isner and Querrey share a lot of history. While much of it can be read as a success story, it could also serve as a cautionary tale for the fleet of promising young American players hoping to win acclaim at the US Open.
The two men began to make an impact at the tour level in 2010. They seemed to be the American players destined to move into the vacuum left at the top of the game by Andy Roddick. That year, late-blooming Isner won his first title (Auckland), while Querrey burst through the underbrush to win four titles, including a Wimbledon tune-up at Queen Club in London.
Isner and Querrey were welcomed as the twin pillars upon which the US game (and the national Davis Cup effort) rested. It didn't work out quite that way, as the pillars proved shaky. While Querrey has had injury issues, he mirrors Isner in that both players' games -- and motivation -- tend to come and go. And the years came and went.
Isner and Querrey have never really had a rivalry (Querrey leads the series 4-2), which might point to their collective lack of ambition. Now it appears each player has been gripped by a new urgency to turn a solid career into one with at least a few dazzling highs. The timing is propitious with the US Open coming up.
At Wimbledon, Querrey said of his run: "Hopefully, American tennis will get a little boost from this maybe, and other guys will gain some confidence, and we can just have more and more guys go deeper in Slams."
Presumably, Querrey was talking about the younger American players for whom he and Isner were role models. But perhaps nobody took the spirit of those words more to heart than Isner.