John Isner looks down at me from across the net. The best tennis player in America is about to unleash the best serve on the planet and let me – a 49-year-old club player – attempt to return it. But we need to set some ground rules first.
“How fast do you want it?” Isner asks.
“Pretend it’s a match,” I say. “Bring out the biggest one.”
“Good,” says Isner’s coach, Mike Sell. “You wouldn’t want to ride a rollercoaster and tell it to slow down, would you?”
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Well, sometimes I have wanted to do just that. But it is too late now.
All 6-foot-10 of Isner winds up. And up. And up.
I play a lot of tennis at an amateur level and have run up against a lot of former college players over the years. But I have never seen anything like this.
Isner appears to have climbed an invisible tree and is going to hit the ball out of it. His contact point is so ridiculously high that...
I have no time to finish the rest of the thought. Isner swings. The ball whizzes to the corner of the service box and into the fence. I never have time to move.
This was Monday at the Winston-Salem Open, a tournament Isner won in 2011 and 2012 before having to skip it in 2013 because of injury. Isner, who is from Greensboro and who will stay at his family’s home there this week, is the tournament’s No.1 seed this year. He plays his first match Tuesday night.
Isner and I have bonded over the past few years over a shared interest in the Carolina Panthers – he is an incredibly avid fan, and I cover the team regularly. Right now he’s excited about Jonathan Stewart’s re-emergence and the fact that most pundits are picking the Panthers to fall back into the pack after a 12-4 season.
“The Panthers do best when they fly under the radar,” says Isner, who lives in Tampa and will attend the Panthers’ Sept.7 opener unless he makes the U.S. Open final. “I’m optimistic. The defense will keep them in every game.”
One of the nicest guys in sports, Isner agreed recently to let me come to the end of his Monday practice and face his serve. Such a challenge is a little like playing H-O-R-S-E against Stephen Curry in that you know how it will turn out, but it does give you a better look at the process.
Isner winds up for serve No.2. It clips the tape for a fault. Then come serves three and four. They fly straight down the middle. I lunge for both and touch neither.
The second one is a green blur that makes a whistling sound.
“How fast was that one?” I ask.
“Only about 130,” Isner says. “No matter how I try in practice, I can’t hit them as hard as in a match.”
For Isner, serving is such second nature now that he spends more of the practice working on other parts of his game.
“Serving isn’t something I focus on all the time,” Isner, who is ranked No. 15 in the world, says in our later interview. “When I’m at home practicing, I’m not hitting buckets and buckets of serves. I sort of treat myself like a pitcher a little bit – you want to give your arm some rest.”
Isner has nearly 6,000 aces in his pro career. At age 29, he has earned nine career ATP titles and $6.7 million in prize money.
We switch from the deuce to the ad side. Isner’s fifth serve is the first one that I touch, but my forehand dribbles into the net.
I decide to guess where Isner will hit every serve. It’s the only chance I have, and it’s not a good one. But it’s one that his opponents often employ.
“I play a lot of guys who guess,” Isner says later.
One player never guesses against Isner, though. That would be world No.1 Novak Djokovic, who Isner considers the best returner in the game. Djokovic simply stands on the baseline and reacts.
On Isner’s sixth serve, I guess wide to my backhand. Lo and behold, I am right.
I get my racquet on the ball. It lands wide in the doubles alley, but I do manage to knock it back over the net.
Isner looks at me in mock horror. “And that’s my favorite serve!” he says. He winds up again and hits the next ball in the same place, this time with more sidespin. It’s the serve he relies on to erase most break points, and it’s an easy ace.
Quickly, he tosses the ball for his eighth and last serve. This one rockets down the middle. It also bounces before it gets halfway into the service box, which is nearly impossible to do unless you are 6-foot-10.
We both walk up to look at the ball mark – Isner hits the ball so hard you can always see a mark, even on hard courts. The serve was 98 percent out. The other two percent caught the line.
“Perfect!” Isner says. “I’m going to end on that one.”
Of the eight serves Isner drilled at me, five were clean aces. One clipped the net his only mistake. The other two were service winners for Isner that I made contact with but couldn’t get back into the court.
I come away impressed not only with Isner’s athleticism – he can also throw a football more than 50 yards – but with how simple his service motion is.
“It’s just natural,” Isner says. “I’ve never really tinkered with my serve at all. The toss, the form, how I do it – no one’s really messed with it. And no one ever should.”
After Monday, I’m certainly not arguing with that.