Sports: Isner Dogs Out His First Title and It’s Good for the Tournament Too

He was the poster player for this year’s BB&T Atlanta Open tournament: John Isner is the 28 year - old local tennis pro was raised in Greensboro, NC and went to The University of Georgia. Currently ranked as the world’s 22nd on the ATP tour, it seemed no match was easy for him as he pushed through after a two and a half hour match versus Australian Lleyton Hewitt (ranked 64) 6-4, 4-6, 7-5(5) on Saturday, at this first men’s contest in the U.S. Open Series.

"I know Lleyton is going to keep making balls," Isner said. "He’s a fantastic returner, like Novak Djokovic. He anticipates so well. He’s one of those guys who stand on the baseline and just absorbs 140-mph serves from me. If I didn’t hit my spot exactly, it’s coming back."

But the contest was close and as the face of the tournament one sports writer noted that  “Tournament coordinators would be pissed if [Isner] doesn’t advance to and win the finals.”

But to date, he had never won a title.

Only in its fourth year, the Atlanta tournament most days drews only a moderate crowd.
In all of the early rounds the stands, on both courts, appeared have less than 500 seats filled; in later rounds, center court was full, but hardly sold out. No official reason was ever explained by tournament organizers. But one obvious observation is that since this is a new tournament it may have outpriced its audience. Most of the tickets were sold as week long or weekend long sessions. From the website it was hard to find individual day tickets. So, making single day passes hard to find and buy, may be a second reason.

Nevertheless and despite the crowds, this is an important tournament for players like Isner and Hewitt, for that matter, on the ATP tour.

Tennis works on a points system, so during the season players strategically play in certain tournaments that will boost their ranking. Of course, some tournaments are more important than others, with the majors being the most valuable. To simplify the men’s ATP tour, tournaments in descending order can earn players more points and more money by participating and having success.

  • Grand Slam or Majors (i.e. Wimbledon, US Open), the total purse can be over $25mil, and the winner takes home nearly $2mil.
  • ATP World Tour Masters 1000 can be up to $10mil, with the winner walking away with $1mil.
  • ATP World Tour 500 total purse is around $1.3 mil, with the singles winner getting up tp $300k.
  • ATP World Tour 250 total purse is around $600k, with the winner getting about $70k - $100k.

The purse for this year’s Atlanta tourney was $623,730, with the singles finals winner walking away with $98,700 and the finalist $52,000.

Since players have to play a certain number of 500 and 250 tournaments in their season, many select ones near their home or an area that they have some kind of connection with. Certainly, some players are requested to play particular matches, as well. But for Atlanta, this explains why you won’t expect to draw players like the current world’s number one and two, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, anytime soon.

For a player like Hewitt, once the world’s number 1 (November 2001) and winner of two majors, he is now 32 years old, has suffered injuries, had surgery and is finally playing at a high level again. He likely chose this tournament because of the draw of players, he had a good chance to win. And going into the semi-finals, the Aussie had dominated the head-to-head series with Isner, leading four matches to one. So until Saturday afternoon, he was on his way to another title.

The BB&T Atlanta Open, however, is the perfect place for Isner to get in a 250 tournament, be the face of it, and win it. A sports writer in the press room said “He’s probably the best player on tour who has never won a title.” Still in his 20’s, Isner still has time, but a short window of it, to cross the threshold and become a great player. He is unusually tall and it’s hard to say if his 6’9” height works to his advantage or not. He can grab every lob shot, but seemed to fatigue quickly if made to chase drop shots. (And observation was made early in the first sets of three matches over the week.) So, it’s yet to be determined if he will ever push to a top 3 player. (His highest ranking was nine in April 2012).  

Isner  is the local southerner who represents the region on the world’s stage of tennis. His fans came to support, including a little boy named Justin. Justin proclaimed himself Isner’s #1 fan, had a personalized t-shirt stating such, and followed pro around all tournament long. He shouted from the stands and after matches...each time, Isner was gracious enough to engage him. The boy even asked for his number, and the former Bulldog actually gave it to him, writing it on his hat and whispered “don’t give this to anyone.”

Sunday, the stands filled with even more Isner fans cheering “Go Bulldog” at every chance during the finals match versus Kevin Anderson. Isner fought it out again in three sets 6-7(3), 7-6(2), 7-6(2) for his first title, a homecourt title if you will, at the BB&T Atlanta Open.
"I’ve been on the wrong edge of a final that was that close before,” Isner said after the finals match. “It feels good to be on other end of that. I never wavered. I believed, even at love-40, that I could hold on. It seems I came through for the good each of every time."

Next he has committed to Citi Open July 27th - August 4th in Washington D.C., which will be more competitive as it is a ATP 500 tournament with a total purse of $1,546,590.

The U.S. Open is August 26th through September 9th, 2013.

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