Like most 10-year-old athletic hopefuls, John Isner had his heroes. Among them was Andre Agassi, and Isner watched in 1996 when Agassi captured a gold medal at the Atlanta Games.
"I didn't know what my tennis career held at that point, but seeing him win the gold medal in the United States was very special to me," Isner said on a teleconference. "It's pretty special to think about having a chance to do the same thing. He was one of the guys I looked up to."
Isner, who lives in Tampa and trains at the Saddlebrook Academy in Wesley Chapel, seems to have a chance to follow in Agassi's footsteps. He has grinded his way to No. 10 in the ATP rankings, second to former Tampa resident and training partner Mardy Fish among Americans.
Since the beginning of the year, he's claimed victories over Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. His recent success makes him a likely candidate for the U.S. Olympic team in London, where he would relish the chance to play singles, doubles and mixed doubles.
"It's such a huge event. The tennis season revolves around the four grand slams but with this an Olympic year, there are five grand slams. And two are at Wimbledon," said Isner, 27. "Wimbledon is the mecca of tennis, but again the Olympics are just once every four years. I just hope I get the chance to compete."
The Olympics crowd the tennis schedule, placed almost halfway between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. But, then, Isner has a reputation as a glutton for punishment.
He had worked to the fringes of the tennis radar when his opening-round match at Wimbledon in 2010 against French qualifier Nicholas Mahut made the 6-foot-9 Isner a sensation. Seeded 23rd, Isner needed 11 hours and 5 minutes of court time spread across three days to defeat Mahut 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (7-3), 70-68. Each player served more than 100 aces, and the match set a record for most games in a tournament match, 183.
Among the challenges for the Olympic hopefuls in tennis is keeping one's plate relatively clean in a year overstocked with big events.
The goal is to pick the right events leading to Wimbledon, then the Olympics, and leave enough gas in the tank to perform well at the U.S. Open later in August.
"For the most part, guys can make their own schedules," Isner said. "There are some required tournaments that the top 30 players have to play, but there are some they can take off. Doing a smart schedule is very important. You want to peak for the big events; that's obviously Wimbledon, the U.S. open, the Olympics. That's a lot of tennis and a lot of travel."
The U.S. team will be selected based on the top-ranked men and women as of June 11, following the French Open. Each country can have a maximum of four players, so barring injury, Isner seems a lock to qualify in singles among U.S. men.
His booming serve would seem to make grass Isner's preferred surface, but he has excelled on clay as well, with a 7-1 record this season.
"Moreso than the surfaces being different, I've been playing well and have been very confident," he said. "I feel like my results are going to be very solid. Grass is a surface that players play the least on. There aren't that many tournaments, but there's two massive events on grass this year (in addition to its traditional tourney, Wimbledon will be the site of the Olympics tennis competition). I have done well on clay, but I do think I can play on grass as well."
Given Isner's bring-it-on attitude, the addition of mixed doubles to the Olympics couldn't come at a better time. His biggest obstacle could be finding the ideal partner. Serena Williams is his top choice, as she is with Fish, Andy Roddick and the Bryan Brothers, the top-ranked doubles team in the world.
"I may be the odd man out," Isner said. "But I'm pretty good friends with Serena. Might need to bribe her, maybe send a gift in the mail to get her to play with me. Obviously, she's one of the most dominant players ever. To have her on my team would be a big advantage."
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