Reported by South Cost Today
NEWPORT, R.I. — At 27, John Isner is neither at the beginning of his playing career or the end of it so, as a top-10 tennis player, he’s a bit of a maverick at the Campbell’s Hall of Fame Championships.
America’s only professional grass-court tournament, which begins today at the Newport Casino, annually follows Wimbledon before the summer gives way to the July-August hard-court circuit, paving the road to the U.S. Open. Historically, that’s meant getting some combination of young lions, journeymen and has-beens — that and the occasional veteran player on the comeback trail from a season-killing injury.
But the defending champion is in the sweet spot of his career, and here he is, playing the Hall of Fame.
“It’s a lot different than any other town. It’s a nice change, this town is awesome,” said the 6-foot-9 Isner, who in the last couple of years has become a threat to go deep into the second week at the majors.
Wimbledon seemed like the place where Isner’s big serve and forehand could do serious damage, but after falling in five sets to unseeded Alejandro Falla in the first round at Wimbledon, the world No. 10 finds himself looking for the spark he got from Newport in 2011.
“I enjoyed myself here last year, and I know how this tournament affected how I played from that point on so I’m hoping to duplicate that same thing this year,” said Isner.
Last year, Isner became the first top seed to win the title in the tournament’s 36-year history. It was an ironic conquest, considering he arrived in a year-long funk eminating from his history-making, 11-hour, five-set (70-68 in the fifth) win over Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010. He had to play Mahut again last year, and even that went routinely. They could meet again this year.
“Prior to last year’s tournament, I had never won a match here, never won a set here,” said Isner. “I took a wild-card at the last minute. It’s one of those things where I was feeling it on the court and things just started going my way. This tournament turned my year around for sure.”
With world No. 12 Mardy Fish not playing the Olympics, Ryan Harrison (48th) and Donald Young (51st) are also using Newport as a grass-court warm-up for the 2012 summer games at Wimbledon.
All three have played Newport on multiple occasions, but the field is especially strong this year with fellow Olympians Kei Nishikori (Japan), Milos Raonic (Canada) and former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champ Lleyton Hewitt (Australia) present.
Sam Querrey of the U.S. is on the comeback trail as he returns to Newport. Ranked as high as 17 in the world last year, the 64th-ranked Querrey missed significant time with injuries but looms as a darkhorse after making it to the third round at Wimbledon. He beat Raonic in four sets in the second round before losing 17-15 in the fifth set to Marin Cilic.
The 1988 Davis Cup tie between the John McEnroe-led U.S. and Spain and other special events featuring big names have drawn extra-large crowds to the Casino. Despite the temptation to make the Hall of Fame a bigger deal on the ATP World Tour, Newport is comfortable in its niche, especially as a charming oasis before an otherwise tiresome and stressful summer of pounding on hard courts in big cities.
“I think a lot of guys want to stay on grass and keep that feel of grass-court play. I think that’s contributing to this field,” said Isner. “Whether I make it all the way to the final or go out in the first round, I’m going to enjoy myself and try not to put any pressure on myself.”