The Curse of John Isner

Disclaimer: John Isner is a fantastic tennis player and in their own way, his marathons at Wimbledon were extremely impressive. This piece is purely satirical.

Today, Tennis Twitter was abuzz with the news that the four Grand Slam events had decided to homogenize their formats: in the case of a 6-6 deciding set, the match will be decided by a super-tiebreak, first to ten points. I’m not here to tell you whether to be happy or sad about this. I’m just here to tell you who is to blame for these developments, and that is one man: John Robert Isner.

Isner smiles with relief after beating Mahut 70-68 (SEVENTY TO SIXTY-EIGHT!) in the fifth set of the first round of Wimbledon, 2010. Screenshot: Wimbledon

Behind these pearly-white teeth lies a wicked soul. Isner has one of the greatest serves in the history of tennis and isn’t the best at breaking serve. This is a deadly-boring combination. Wimbledon, as you may know, required one player to win a deciding set by two games for quite a while. You could get a 9-7 fifth set, like the brilliant Federer-Nadal Wimbledon final in 2008. But you could also get an eternally long deciding set under the wrong circumstances.

If a player could hold serve indefinitely and fail to break serve indefinitely, the match could go on for hours too long: back, forth, back, forth, ace, ace, ace, nothing to see (or be interested by) here.

John Isner not only found himself part of those wrong circumstances multiple times, he created them like an evil tennis god hell-bent on boring spectators to death.

A moment of seriousness: I don’t fault Isner for playing this way, I really don’t. There’s only so much you can do when you’re six-ten. He has honed his serve into what many consider the biggest weapon in tennis, and it’s ridiculously hard to return serve well at such a height. He’s maximized the options available to him and has had a very good career.

With that said, Isner played a match against Nicolas Mahut at the 2010 Wimbledon that stretched to 70-68 in the fifth set.

It lasted three days.

THREE DAYS.

The worst part was that whoever advanced, leaving behind the bloody and bored corpse of their opponent, was obviously screwed for the second round match. Part of the tournament had to be put on hold for a match that was going to produce a doomed winner. Isner said as much — he was physically destroyed after edging out Mahut and hit zero aces in his second-rounder, which he lost 6-0, 6-3, 6-2.

He did get a moment of elation from the match, which he shared with every tennis fan on the planet, because they were all so damn glad the match was over.

Legend has it that Isner’s legs, too long to be contained by the picture frame, pierced the sky that day. Screenshot: Wimbledon

Isner is a vengeful god, and decided that the 70-68 marathon was insufficient punishment for tennis fans. In 2018, he made it all the way to the Wimbledon semifinals. He played Kevin Anderson. Viewers around the world sighed and threw tantrums, because they knew what was coming. We all knew what was coming.

A tiebreak. Then another one. Then ANOTHER one. The fifth set went to 6-all, but we were without our deadlock-breaking sanctuary, instead launched into a purgatory of aces and tired legs and shanked returns. Isner lost this match, but Anderson was so shattered from his 26-24 fifth set victory that he could barely move against Djokovic in the final. Jacob Steinberg of the Guardian liveblogged the final and had to field emails accusing him of bias against Djokovic since he couldn’t stop observing the disastrous quality of the final. Just look at these screencaps.

The most notable quote here is probably “this might be the worst final I’ve ever seen. Call it off.” Isner was out of the tournament, but as Steinberg discovered, chaos gods have power from beyond the grave.

Never mind that Isner has only played two insanely long matches at Wimbledon and that no other match at Wimbledon since 70-68-gate has even required a player to win as many 20 games in a deciding set, we decided that these matches were sufficient evidence to warrant a rule change, dammit. 2019 saw the introduction of a tiebreak at 12-all, even though Roland-Garros was the only other major with extended deciding sets. Despite there being only one match in the 2019 tournament that went to 12-all (the men’s final), that was apparently too much as well.

The majors tried to claim that the decision was made in the name of consistency, which would improve fan and player experience. I see through their fa├žade, though. This was done in the name of John Isner. If not for him, would any of this have happened? His archetype — being great at holding serve and terrible at breaking serve — was so boring and/or physically taxing that the powers that be literally decided they had to change the rules to kill the possibility of further matches like 70-68 or 26-24. Those two matches had such disastrous ramifications that the remote possibility of another one taking place ended up being a non-factor.

From the 67-66 changeover during the 2010 Mahut match. Screenshot: Wimbledon

So in the end, Isner has managed to force his legacy on the tennis world even before he retires. His style of play was so intensely destructive that it broke the very fabric of the rulebook of the game.

Thanks, John.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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