Reported by USA Today
As part of USA TODAY Sports’ “100 Olympic hopefuls in 100 Days” series, prospective U.S. Olympians give their thoughts on the Games in their own words.
John Isner is standing taller than ever. That’s no small accomplishment for the nearly 6-10 North Caroline native, whose rise has positioned him well for a maiden Olympic appearance.
Isner shocked Roger Federer on red clay in the Davis Cup in February and dumped world No. 1 Novak Djokovic to reach the BNP Paribas Open final in March, pushing his ranking into the top 10 for the first time. This week, Isner is No. 10 in the world and the top American.
That also made the 26-year-old who played at the University of Georgia the first man in a quarter century to crack the ATP Tour’s top 10 with four years of college under his belt. Fellow Bulldog Mikael Pernfors of Sweden was the last in 1986.
The London Games return Isner to the place that earned him instant cult status. The tournament will be at Wimbledon, where in 2010 he bested Frenchman Nicolas Mahut in a three-day, 11-hour ordeal that shattered every endurance record in tennis. It ended 70-68 in the fifth set.
In a way, college still defines Isner. He is in regular contact with his ex-Georgia coach, Manny Diaz, religiously follows college football and feels most at home with buddies at a tailgate.
“When it’s college football season, there is nothing more in the world I like than either being at home on my couch watching football all day Saturday and Sunday or even better being in Athens tailgating for a game,” he says. “Get there at 8 or 9 in the morning and crack open a beer and start eating good food — that’s really what I love.”
Growing up I didn’t even expect to play professional tennis, let alone the Olympics. My earliest memory is Michal Johnson breaking all the records in track and field. I don’t necessarily think tennis when I think Olympics. It’s more of a track and field type thing to me.
I was in college for Athens ’04. I actually knew Mardy (Fish) a little bit. I remember sitting in the house we lived in with four other guys — sort of a frat house thing — and watching him on TV. In ’08, I was on tour. The time change was a bit of an issue. Michael Phelps is what I take away from it. I don’t think I watched much tennis.
The logistics? I don’t know about any of it, even housing, to tell you the truth. I think it would be cool to stay in the village. I’ll go with the flow. I know in Beijing there was a McDonald’s in the village. That’s the only thing I know.
Having the Olympics in London is very unique. It’s like we’re having two Wimbledons this year. They are so close together. It’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s very, very special, and I hope to do well.
For me, it’s extra scrutiny. Especially when I go over there, Nicolas and myself, we’ll get recognized a little bit more obviously because of the match we played. To be honest, I don’t mind the attention. I enjoy competing over there. It’s died down since 2010. We expected to do a lot of press going into that tournament last year, but then when we played each other again in the first round in 2011 — it was a bit of mayhem.
Flying at my height is challenging. And expensive. When I fly overseas. I’ve got to purchase business class seats. When I fly domestically, I just pray for the exit row. Sometimes people feel sympathy for me, and a lot of times I get the 5-foot-4 person booted out of that seat and I can sit there.
I’m an avid sports fan. I follow NFL, NHL and MLB more than I follow tennis. I enjoy watching all those sports, and I play fantasy in each. My teams are the Hurricanes and Panthers, but I don’t have a baseball team. I’m not the one that’s going to choose the team closest to me.
It’s mostly tennis guys in my fantasy leagues — Fish, Andy Roddick, Daniel Nestor, Ryan Harrison. I finished fourth out of 10 last year in baseball. Top three is what you want to get. But I beat Andy. Mardy tied for first with the Davis Cup team doctor.
Obviously, I’m a huge college football fan. It’s UGA all the way. Last year I went to the South Carolina game after the U.S. Open. I’ve been back to one every year since I left in ’07. When I’m at home and Georgia has a home game, I fly up there even if it’s a little bit inconvenient.