Isner finally utilizing massive game

NEW YORK -- John Isner knew what to do all the way through five grueling sets against Andy Roddick in their third-round U.S. Open encounter, right up until the moment when Roddick swatted a forehand into the net on match point.

How to celebrate? That was a head-scratcher. Isner crouched, then tipped over onto the ground in a slightly awkward imitation of the old schoolkids' drill on what to do if you catch fire: Stop, drop and roll.

Isner had, in fact, played smoking-hot tennis all night to win the biggest match of his life against the top-ranked U.S. player in the most prestigious venue in his home country. But Roddick is also a friend, a supportive older presence on the tour, and a fighter who had evened the match after being two sets down, staving off three match points. Isner scrambled to his feet about as quickly as a 6-foot-9 guy can, pulled off his sweaty ball cap and swept his hands through his hair, replaced the cap and smiled as he walked toward the net to shake hands with Roddick and the chair umpire. Only then did he raise his fists in the air.

"You want to go crazy when you when a match like that, but John respects Andy," said commentator Rennae Stubbs, the veteran Australian doubles player who often trains with Isner at Saddlebrook Academy in Tampa. "It shows what kind of guy John is. He's a lovely guy."

Indeed, Isner is an amiable, unaffected guy with an arsenal that he hasn't always understood how to use. As his coach, Craig Boynton puts it, the 24-year-old Isner needed to play more "big man tennis" -- something that might seem obvious unless you're the big guy trying to execute it. And he will have to play another colossal match if he hopes to prevail Monday against 10th-seeded Fernando Verdasco of Spain, the muscular lefty who has pushed himself from the edge of the elite right into the thick of things this season. It will be the first meeting between the two.

In the meantime, with the early ousters of Roddick, James Blake, Sam Querrey and Taylor Dent, Isner finds himself the only U.S. standard-bearer in the men's draw.

The win over Roddick took Isner farther than he'd ever been in a Grand Slam, a development that seemed unlikely a few months ago when Isner had backslid into the 140s in the ATP rankings and couldn't seem to get past the first round of a major. He was diagnosed with mononucleosis in May and spent six weeks not doing much of anything before slowly ratchetting his workload back up.

Fortunately for Isner, he'd already built a considerable base with Boynton, who began coaching him in February at Saddlebrook, where he is the director. Boynton, who has coached several top American players, including Jim Courier and Mardy Fish, had observed Isner for some time and offered the occasional tip. When Isner asked to speak to him one day, Boynton sensed a shift.

"He was ready," Boynton said.

Isner was tired of spinning his wheels. The North Carolina native spent four valuable years at the University of Georgia maturing physically and emotionally before blasting into mainstream tennis consciousness during the summer of 2007 with a final appearance in Washington, D.C., where he was beaten by Roddick. Isner followed that up by reaching the third round of the U.S. Open and thrilled a sellout crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium by taking a set from Roger Federer.

After that straightforward initiation into the pro ranks, things got a little more complicated. Isner slogged through a 2008 season during which he was rarely able to string together back-to-back wins until he won a lower-level Challenger event in Lubbock, Texas, late in the year. Tiebreakers he'd won the year before slid off his racket and his confidence sagged.

"Guys like him, their first year out, nobody has a game plan for them," said Isner's college teammate, Bo Hodge -- who also coincidentally went to high school with Roddick in Florida and is a close friend of both men. "The second year, they started to figure out what they could do to beat him, plus he had a couple injuries."

Boynton identified four key areas where Isner needed to improve: more commitment to coming to the net; better balance once he got there; targeting his gigantic serve to spots rather than simply blasting it; and what Boynton calls a "correct expenditure of emotional energy." Although Isner usually looks relaxed on court, he's so accustomed to holding his serve that "he'd get very grumpy when he lost it, and it would take him a lot of time to get back to even," Boynton said.

The bottom line, Boynton advised Isner: "You've got to use all your attributes. You've got to be aggressive, come forward, make people feel uncomfortable and as if they're under constant attack." Isner stepped up his level of conditioning and embarked on awakening his inner beast. "You're the boss, CB," Isner told Boynton. "If you want me there at 10 and 2, I'll be there at 9:45 and 1:45."

The payoff arrived with the hard-court season that is Isner's forte. He won nine matches and lost three through the events at Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., where he lost to Roddick in a three-set semifinal. Isner entered the U.S. Open at a career-high No. 55.

"I think actually he's playing similar to when he first came up," Roddick said before their match in New York. "When he won, he was playing big, going after his forehand a little bit more. I think he got a little bit too passive in his game from there. … I think Craig has made a huge difference.

"He's doing the basics a lot better. I feel like maybe he's staying in the points a little bit more. You don't really get a sense of panic from him right now. I think he's prepared. It almost was a given that if you ever had 15-30 on a serve, if he missed his first serve, he was going to go for a massive second and hoped that it worked. I think he's a little bit more confident in what he has. So he's almost gotten better by pulling back a little."

Hodge, now an assistant coach at the University of Alabama, calls Isner's current state of mind "extremely confident without being arrogant … his serve is such a big weapon that it allows him to never be nervous." Now that he's taking better care of the other parts of his game, Isner has showed he was capable of growth long after reaching his considerable adult height.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.