May 29, 2024
The 6-foot-10 Isner, the United States’ best male player for a good portion of his career, bows out with final-set tiebreaker defeats in both his singles and doubles matches.

By HOWARD FENDRICH | AP Tennis Writer

NEW YORK — John Isner rested his chin on clasped hands, the words coming slowly, the tears welling in his eyes, as he spoke during a news conference at the U.S. Open on Thursday, his last day as a professional tennis player.

“It’s been a huge part of my life. It’s tough to say goodbye. It’s not easy,” the 38-year-old American said. “But eventually, this day would come. It’s hard to prepare for the emotions of it.”

As career-ending days go, it would be hard to come up with a more appropriate way for Isner to bow out than a pair of final-set tiebreakers – one in singles, one in doubles – and, while he would have preferred a victory or two, of course, he did appreciate the raucous crowd support and standing ovations he was showered with at each defeat.

The 6-foot-10 Isner announced the week before play began at Flushing Meadows that this Grand Slam tournament would mark his farewell, and the guy who long was his country’s best male player bowed out in the second round of the singles bracket with a 3-6, 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-4, 7-6 (10-7) loss to another American wild-card entry, Michael Mmoh, at the Grandstand.

A few hours later, Isner headed into full-fledged retirement by dropping a doubles match alongside Jack Sock, another American who has said the U.S. Open will be his last tournament. They were beaten by Robert Galloway and Albano Olivetti, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (10-3), at Court 12.

“There’s, of course, a lot of disappointment with the result of my singles match today, but at the same time a lot of gratitude, as well, just to have one last time playing in an atmosphere like that. It was very cool. As I said on the court, that’s why I work so hard,” Isner said. “Hard to explain how bad my body feels – I’m not (about) talking right now, because it does, but just in general, lately. So everything I do to get it ready to play, there’s a lot that goes into it. I wanted one more U.S. Open and was able to get that.”

When Isner put a volley into the net off a dipping passing shot by Mmoh, the two opponents hugged.

Then Isner – who was one point from winning at 5-4 in the fifth set but netted a backhand return – sat on his sideline chair and covered his face with a white towel.

“In the moment, in that tiebreaker, you’re not really thinking about the fact that it’s his last match. Maybe before you start the match you are, but not in that tiebreaker and not when you’re down match point,” said Mmoh, a 25-year-old who only once before had won a match after dropping the initial two sets.

“When I won the match, I had a lot of positive emotion and I was really, really happy. But then, one second later, I felt bad. I genuinely did,” said Mmoh, who will play 21-year-old Jack Draper of Britain next. “When I saw him get emotional in that interview, I genuinely felt for him. So it was tricky. It was almost like bittersweet. Obviously, at the end of the day, we’re all competitors and we come here for one reason, and so I’m happy to get the ‘W.’”

Always known for his tough-to-read and tough-to-reach big serves, Isner smacked 48 aces against Mmoh, raising his ATP-record career total to 14,470. His last serve, fittingly, arrived at 134 mph.

Isner also holds the single-match mark of 113 aces, achieved during his 11-hour, 5-minute victory over Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010 that concluded at 70-68 in the fifth set – the longest contest in the history of tennis.

He’ll long be remembered for that marathon. His career-best showing at a Grand Slam event also came at the All England Club, where he made it to the semifinals in 2018 before a defeat against Kevin Anderson that finished 26-24 in the fifth.

Those two lengthy final sets were a big factor in the sport’s change to tiebreakers in the decisive sets at all Grand Slam tournaments.

After losing the first-to-10 tiebreaker against Mmoh, Isner was asked to describe his emotions for the spectators who chanted his last name.

“Yeah, it’s tough,” Isner said, and sniffled.

Isner, who needed a wild card to get into the draw at Flushing Meadows, blasted 48 aces and won 86% of his first-serve points in a match that also included 63 unforced errors. Several times, Isner fell to the ground while diving to make volleys.

Isner reached a career-best ranking of No. 8 in 2018, shortly after reaching the semifinals at Wimbledon. He won 16 career singles titles.

Later, offering a summation of his career, he again was hit by the finality of it all.

“I might not win every match, that’s for sure. I might lose a lot of close matches. I might get tight and choke a little bit on the court. That happens. But also I care,” said Isner, who won 16 singles titles and reached a career high of No. 8 in the ATP rankings. “I love this sport, for sure. I want to be remembered as someone who competed pretty hard on the court. I think I did that. But off the court, it’s most important within the locker room to have the respect of my colleagues.”

Third-seeded Jessica Pegula, the highest-ranked American woman, took control early and beat Patricia Maria Tig 6-3, 6-1 in 72 minutes in Arthur Ashe Stadium at night, after defending men’s champion Carlos Alcaraz reached the third round by overpowering Lloyd Harris, 6-3, 6-1, 7-6 (4), in a match that some viewers in New York, Los Angeles and several other cities couldn’t watch on ESPN2 when it went dark because of a dispute between Disney and the Charter Spectrum cable system.

“I played a great match,” Alcaraz said, “from the beginning until the last ball.”

In other action, sixth-seeded Jannik Sinner advanced to the third round with a 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 victory over fellow Italian Lorenzo Sonego. Sinner has never lost to an Italian, improving to 10-0 against his countrymen. He’s seeking a deep run at Flushing Meadows after reaching the semifinals at Wimbledon this year and the quarterfinals at last year’s U.S. Open, losing to Alcaraz in a five-set marathon after holding a match point.

“I felt now my game has improved a little bit and developed,” said the 22-year-old Sinner, who won 89% of his first-serve points and was successful in 22 of 25 trips to the net. “Physically, I’m good and let’s see what’s coming.”

Alexander Zverev, the No. 12 seed, downed fellow German Daniel Altmaier, 7-6 (1), 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, on his return to outer Court 17. Zverev was among several players who noticed a scent of marijuana on the court in the first round, describing it as smelling like “Snoop Dogg’s living room.”

“I think it will stay the weed court for the tournament,” he said Thursday.

For Zverev, a U.S. Open finalist in 2020, it marked his fifth straight advance to the tournament’s third round. He will face No. 19 seed Grigor Dimitrov, who downed 36-year-old Andy Murray in a convincing 6-3, 6-4, 6-1 victory in Arthur Ashe Stadium that included 45 unforced errors from the three-time Grand Slam champion, who won the U.S. Open in 2012.

Stan Wawrinka, a 38-year-old owner of three major titles including the 2016 U.S. Open, moved into the third round by beating No. 30 seed Tomás Martín Etcheverry, 7-6 (6), 6-7 (7), 6-3, 6-2.

Draper upset an apparently ailing Hubert Hurkacz, 6-2, 6-4, 7-5, extending his return to the tour after being out more than two months with a shoulder injury.

Draper, a 21-year Brit who only came back to the tour in early August, showed no signs of injury with strong serves and groundstrokes, while Hurkacz appeared listless at times and called the courtside medics over during a changeover in the final set.

It dashed the hopes of the 17th seed from Poland, who came into the U.S. Open after a strong semifinal showing at the tune-up event in Cincinnati when he had a match point against top-seeded Alcaraz before eventually losing in three sets.

On the women’s side, second-seeded Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka had little trouble with Jodie Burrage of Britain in a 6-2, 6-3 victory in a little more than an hour. Sabalenka advances to a third-round matchup against Clara Burel of France, who beat No. 25 Karolina Pliskova, 6-4, 6-2.

Ninth-seeded Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova downed Martina Trevisan of Italy, 6-2, 6-2; 2017 U.S. Open runner-up Madison Keys, the No. 17 seed, advanced with a 6-1, 6-2 victory over Yanina Wickmayer of Belgium; and No. 26 Elina Svitolina of Ukraine defeated Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4. No. 13 seed Daria Kasatkina also advanced.

COACHES CAN TALK TO PLAYERS, WHO ARE YELLING BACK

Something about tennis makes players want to scream. Often, it turns out, at the people who are trying to help them win.

Everywhere you look at the U.S. Open, wayward shots are leaving Grand Slam champions such as Andy Murray or highly seeded contenders like Andrey Rublev in what appears to be a fit of rage directed at coaches – and that happens even when they are winning.

They’re not necessarily mad at their coaches. Usually, anyway. They’re frustrated by their sport.

“I would generally think that tennis drives people crazy,” said 2021 U.S. Open champion Daniil Medvedev, a 27-year-old Russian. “When I say ‘people,’ tennis players drive themselves crazy.”

They’ll show it by responding to their own mistakes by yelling toward the seats where members of their team are sitting. It’s unclear whether they’re seeking a response – coaching during Grand Slam matches wasn’t even allowed until last year, so most players are used to going it alone – or just need to vent at someone.

Anyone.

“When those frustrations happen, it’s just like built-up tension,” said 2022 French Open finalist Coco Gauff, a 19-year-old American who recently added veteran coach Brad Gilbert to her crew. “Sometimes it’s not even directed at my team. My team knows that some of the things I say isn’t directed at them.”

The same goes for No. 8 seed Rublev, who insists that even though he’s yelling toward the coach, it’s never AT the coach.

“No, I’m complaining to my team, like, how stupid I am,” the Russian said.

It’s the sort of thing rarely seen in team sports. NBA star Steph Curry doesn’t miss a shot and then yell at Coach Steve Kerr on the Golden State Warriors’ bench. If NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes throws an interception, his response isn’t to holler at Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid.

And when a player actually is seen yelling at a coach, such as Tom Brady’s blowup with Josh McDaniels when both were with the New England Patriots in 2017, the episode immediately goes viral and provides days of fodder for sports talk shows.

In tennis, it’s part of the game. Ivan Lendl, Murray’s coach and a Hall of Fame player himself, doesn’t care if the rants are targeted at him.

“He’s yelling at all of us,” Lendl said.

At least it’s no longer a one-way conversation. Starting with last year’s U.S. Open, coaches can speak to their players in short phrases while at the same end of the court. Before that, all coaches could do within the rules was sit there and listen, almost as if being scolded.

When Murray is upset about something now, such as during his loss to No. 19 Grigor Dimitrov on Thursday, Lendl and other members of their group – now allowed to watch video and study stats on a tablet during matches in New York – can try to help.

“Sometimes you’re sort of speaking or shouting in that direction. Obviously, it’s not that comfortable for the people in there, because they weren’t allowed to say anything,” Murray said, “whereas now you’re able to have more of a dialogue, which … in those situations is probably easier.”

Just one problem.

“It’s very difficult to understand what they’re saying, no matter how close you are,” Lendl said. “There is too much noise, so 90% of the time we don’t know what they’re saying.”

That’s why Novak Djokovic would like to expand the coaching rules. The current interaction, while improved, still doesn’t allow a player and coach to huddle like during a timeout in team sports.

“So we have to sometimes raise our voice in order for our team to hear us, or for us to hear them, because otherwise we have to communicate with signs or signals,” Djokovic said. “It’s louder out on the court.”

Medvedev suspects part of the reason players feel they can yell in tennis is because they hire the coaches. There’s no general manager or team owner making that decision and empowering the coach.

“And the coach must be much stricter, because he has to control the team. He doesn’t have to control only one player,” Medvedev said. “He has to always show who is the boss in control. … Whereas in tennis, you don’t want this, because then you’re going to put the player down and it’s not going to be good.”

Rublev’s moods can swing at any time. A fist-pump after a backhand down the line is quickly followed by a mini-meltdown when the next one hits the net.

Like Medvedev, he believes the ups and downs of tennis, when players feel unbeatable one day and unprepared the next, make it hard to always stay under control.

“It’s not easy when you’re always with yourself alone, and every day is the same and you have to face those things,” Rublev said, “and then when you are mentally more down, you explode sometimes.”

More to come on this story.

AP staff writers James Martinez and Brian Mahoney contributed to this report.

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