Just relax, man: How John Isner finally shed his on-court nerves

PARIS -- At 6-foot-10, John Isner naturally stands head and shoulders above many of his peers, but there are a few other things that distinguish him from the pack that has chased the dominant players of this era.

Earlier this season, Isner joined a club of three other men when he passed the 10,000-ace milestone -- many accumulated in the tiebreakers he earns with his fearsome service delivery, and 112 in the longest match in history, his surreal 2010 Wimbledon opener against Nicolas Mahut.

Also, Isner played college tennis for four years, an anomaly on the men's tour. He equaled his career-high ranking of No. 9 this spring, six years after he first achieved it.

Here at Roland Garros, Isner wears an invisible badge of honor as the only man to extend Rafael Nadal to five sets in a first-round match at the event the Spaniard has won 10 times. The hot day in 2011 pushed both men to the limit.

"I just went out there with really nothing to lose and just going out and playing the big points pretty well, but eventually I succumbed to him," the ninth-seeded Isner recalled after dispatching fellow American Noah Rubin in the first round this week.

"But that was a great memory for me. I think going into that match, I hadn't played well that year. And even though I lost, it actually set me up for the rest of the year because I started playing much better after that."

Isner has had to draw positives from his close calls. He's had a lot of moral victories on occasions when he'd rather have tangible ones. That dynamic shifted in March, when Isner won the Miami Open the month before his 33rd birthday for the first Masters 1000 event win of his career.

It was a breakthrough that germinated off-court during the tournament over a series of dinners out with his part-time coach, David Macpherson, a longtime guide for doubles icons Bob and Mike Bryan.

Their talks were casual, with one sporting event or another playing out on a television screen overhead. Macpherson usually ordered a whiskey and Isner a glass of wine. But Isner had a serious agenda. He wanted to break the habit he thought was holding him back, and more importantly, he thought he was capable of change.

"As a professional athlete, you want to feel so strong and impervious to everything, but that wasn't the case for me and I let him know that," Isner told me in Houston at the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships last month. "I let him know what I was feeling in the big moments. I let him know sometimes how scared I was."

The most recent example had come at Indian Wells, where Isner froze and "played eight feet behind the baseline" at a critical juncture of his second-round match with France's Gael Monfils.

"I'd find myself seizing up, not freeing up," Isner said. "And just wanting to win so badly that I didn't want to go after it myself, I was a little afraid of that. With how I'm built, it's the absolute wrong thing to do. When other players get nervous and get tight -- say, be it a Nadal, a Djokovic, a Murray -- they can rely on their wheels. I can't. I'd just find myself hoping my opponent would miss. I knew what was holding me up was myself."

Macpherson suggested Isner use personal analytics to track his angst vis-à-vis his results: a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 representing the positive end of the spectrum. Isner started out right in the middle and -- in the goal-oriented manner of a veteran athlete -- strove to ratchet it higher. "Somewhere along the line, I was a steady 9 or 10," Isner said, able to put bad points behind him more efficiently and stop lingering on missed opportunities.

Tennis Channel commentator Justin Gimelstob, who still works with Isner on occasion, said he regarded Miami as a confirmation.

"It was beautiful to see it all fall into place in Miami, but I wasn't surprised," Gimelstob said in Houston. "I've always known what he is capable of. And I believe he's capable of much more. This is the best his tennis skills have ever been. Obviously, the cornerstone of his game is the serve, and that's what creates so many opportunities, but there was some very good shot-making [in Miami].

"John is a very amiable, affable, kind-hearted guy, but he's not one of those guys who wants to sit around and ponder tennis or talk tennis. I think he's become more of a student of the game and a student of his game, owning his game, owning his emotions."

Isner says he's mindful of evolving as an athlete and tries to stay open to change. He has become a devotee of spin classes, which give him an ideal, sweat-drenched workout and spare the pounding on his legs -- important for a big man's overall health.

Yet earlier this season, Isner didn't feel wiser just because he was older. "People say, 'Oh, experience is gonna help in this situation,' but no, sometimes it doesn't," he said. "Experience can kinda backfire on you. You tell yourself, 'I should win this match, I'm the more experienced player,' and then you're playing against someone who maybe doesn't have as much to lose, and things just don't really go your way."

Carrying momentum between different surfaces on different continents is one of the most challenging things about tennis, and Isner, who will face Argentina's Horacio Zeballos in the second round, has not had a stellar clay-court season. But he said his match with Rubin told him he was still closer to 10 than 1 on his own personal gauge.

"I think the stats would lie today," he told reporters. "I had nine or ten break points in that third set, and I had four or five match points before I finally won the match. But I don't feel like I played those points too poorly. It was more of the case of Noah stepping up and playing some good tennis. And having a tough match like this, a match that I really, really had to dig deep, and especially in the first round, I think can bode well going forward."