These are heady days for a soon to be 33-year-old American tennis player who has long been admired for the depth of his devotion to the game he plays for a living, and the scope of his ambitions. He is a fellow held in high esteem among his colleagues, an earnest individual who has handled disappointments graciously, and a man who has worn success handsomely. He is someone the fans have admired immensely.
Above all else, John Isner seems to have a realistic vision of who he is, where he is going and what he wants. The view here is that he just might be moving into the most productive period of his career. He concluded eight consecutive years (2010-2017) entrenched in the ATP Top 20, breaking into the Top 10 briefly in 2012. But now he is back to a career high at No. 9, and poised to climb higher. The week before last, Isner secured his first career Masters 1000 crown in Miami. This past weekend, he helped lead the U.S. past Belgium into the semifinals of Davis Cup, contributing an opening day singles triumph over Joris De Loore.
After his stirring run in Miami—which included victories over three of the sport’s Top 6 players (Marin Cilic, Juan Martin del Potro and Alexander Zverev)—Isner spoke in his press conference about the extraordinary contributions made to his cause by his coach David Macpherson and his chiropractor Clint Cordial. His laudatory remarks about those two individuals put into perspective that no one can succeed at the highest levels of the game without a closely-knit team.
Speaking of the affable Macpherson and the role he had played in the landmark Miami triumph, Isner said, “We hashed out—and especially I hashed out—what had been holding me back, and it’s not more reps on the court. It’s not more in the gym. I have been doing that. It was just mental things and myself being tight and tentative on the court that was holding me back. That’s the reason I was losing close matches. We cleared that hurdle this week. I went into every match super fresh mentally. After each match that I won, we would have dinner, and we kept hammering that point. Just be loose and I will be a force if I can play freely. I was able to do that.”
Turning his attention to Cordial’s role on the team, Isner said, “I’ve been with Clint for six years. It was not anything he’s done [just] this week. It’s what he’s done through the course of six years we’ve been together. I have been very healthy for six years. I will knock on wood. That is in large part to him adjusting, putting this machine on me, massage. It’s everything. Physically at 32 I feel great, the best I have in a while. And that’s in large part to him. There is a component of practicing and getting [to] the gym, but then the other part of the battle is taking care of yourself. That’s what I do, and what he’s done for me.”
Wanting to know more about the outlook of the Isner team, and specifically Macpherson and Cordial, I reached out to both men by telephone, and found what they had to say enlightening and informative. My first call went out to Macpherson, the popular Australian who was once one of the world’s finest doubles players. He coached the esteemed Bryan brothers for over a decade (starting in 2005), and has recently reunited with the twins, although he travels less than he used to. The Bryans were also victorious in Miami, as solely American men captured the titles at a Masters 1000 tournament for the first time since 2003.
The combined triumphs of the Bryans and Isner were heartwarming for Macpherson, who began coaching Isner officially in 2016, Meanwhile, he is the head coach for George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Macpherson totally concurs with Isner about the paramount importance of the big man’s mental state in determining the outcome of matches. Isner had lost six of the eight matches he had played in 2018 heading into Miami, but now has swept seven contests in a row.
Macpherson told me, “John and I had spent many hours before Miami trying to get to the bottom of his frustrations and his nerves, and why he wasn’t enjoying his tennis as much as he should. We just tried to get down to the mental side of the game and give him some keys and perspective that would free him up. The difference in Miami was that he was not afraid to lose. When he felt himself getting frustrated, negative or nervous—all of those bad emotions—he just self checked himself every time his emotions started to trigger. He did an amazing job.”
Capping off the best week of his entire professional career with a hard fought 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4 win over Zverev, Isner emoted with fervor, urging the crowd on demonstrably. Did Macpherson plant the notion of connecting with the crowd so dynamically?
“To be honest with you, no”, he replies. “That was purely John’s old college tennis instincts coming out. He was such a great college player for Georgia. You play with so much passion and emotion in college tennis and it is so much more intense than the pros as far as the frenzy that you work yourself up to in performing at your best. In that Miami final, John just sensed that this was his moment, so instead of shrinking he just embraced it and got the crowd involved. In his mind he felt he was going to win, somehow or some way. That is just what champions do. They believe they are going to win and it is a self fulfilling prophecy.”
Cordial is an essential member of the Isner Team in his own specialist capacity. He hails from a family steeped in knowledge on attending to the bodies of athletes and keeping them healthy. He has one brother who works with Grigor Dimitrov, another who was employed in the chiropractor field with James Blake, and a sister who is a massage therapist. The family has a clinic back home in Montana.
Clearly, Clint Cordial has used a wide range of techniques to make certain Isner is loose and limber. But he, too, has tried to help Isner avoid beating himself up psychologically.
“David has done an incredible job of hammering that into him,” says Cordial. “But everybody working with John, all of us together from Macca to Justin Gimelstob to Rene Moller, have strung this chord with John, which is: don’t be so hard on yourself or get so down on yourself, be loose, relax. Macca was channeling that in Miami. John’s mental side really opened up.”
The mental and physical sides are, of course, intertwined.
Cordial asserts, “I understand John’s body very well after working with him for six years, and know what I can and can not do in a tournament setting. That first-round match with Jiri Vesely in Miami [Isner won 7-6, 1-6, 6-3] was tough. There was a crucial period going forward through that tournament of figuring out what to do and how to help him. We did a lot of different things in a short amount of time to treat his body.”
While Cordial prioritized from his point of view, so did Macpherson from the coaching chair. It was no easy task for the Australian.
He explains, “John tweaked his abductor against Vesely. He could have gone out there but gutted that match out. He was able to play quite well in his next match against Youzhny and then he stamped his mark on the tournament in his win over Cilic. He knows what a great player he is. It is about unlocking his potential. John has possibly the greatest serve of all time, and when he is relaxed he is a much better mover. When he is in full flow like he was in Miami, it is amazing how quickly he skips around and finds forehands that could be backhands, or how he can get forward to drop shots or lunge for volleys. This wasn’t revealed that much the last few years because of the tension and pressure he was putting on himself.”
Cordial is fully in accord with Macpherson. He is confident Isner has the physical resources to build on his Miami heroics and win a Grand Slam championship. He believes it is incumbent upon Isner to exploit the mental toughness that was so evident in his groundbreaking Florida victory, as he held in his last 53 service games of the tournament.
“I was a college athlete but wasn’t ever a pro. Macpherson played on the ATP tour and Gimel did too. So our goal is for John to win a Grand Slam tournament. If you look at his history we are still talking about the mental game. He has literally kind of self destructed and pulled the trigger so to speak, shooting himself in the foot at times. So he made it over a huge hurdle in Miami with how he went about everything. Earlier this year at some points you could kind of feel the air lost in the sail. He was great in Miami with his attitude. I think our whole team has done a good job of kind of leading him to water, and he is starting to drink the water.”
The fact remains that Isner must keep his eye on many different targets, including the fine tuning of his game, training purposefully and making certain he is listening to his body and proceeding accordingly. Cordial is the captain of the latter category, and has relied on the tried and true ever since he commenced his relationship with Isner in 2012. But he is open to some new notions.
“About a year ago and especially into this year,” says Cordial, “we looked at different techniques on how to unload the body and be able to train and fire his muscles to get his body working without loading the tissue as much as maybe we have done in the past. So a lot of what I am looking at is how we can train John without exhausting his body. There are a few products out on the market that basketball uses. The NBA is very forward thinking in the way they treat their players. John’s body type as someone 6’10” correlates with the NBA players pretty well, so I think we have used a page out of their book.”
As for Macpherson, he has honed in sensibly on some parts of Isner’s game that are fundamentally significant.
He amplifies, “We have been working on John becoming a better volleyer and using the kicker on first serve to serve-volley when guys aren’t expecting that. And my big thing with John is he has to hit his returns in singles like he is playing doubles, so he gets ahead in the point quicker. When he returns defensively, he misses more of them and the other guy gets to run him first, which I don’t like.”
Macpherson points to Isner’s victory in the doubles at Indian Wells alongside Jack Sock—when they toppled the Bryan brothers in the final— as evidence of how Isner should go about returning serves.
“In that final,” he says, “John was the difference maker at the end with some big shots and great returns. He has to keep committing to his ‘doubles’ returns in singles. He hates it when he blows a big break point by playing it nervously. I hope we are on a path that, when John gets to big break points and tiebreakers, he is thinking of doing more than just making the return, which will hopefully lead to more double faults and conservative first serves from opponents who know he is going to come after them.”
Team Isner is well positioned to bring out the best in their player for the next couple of years, to give him a serious chance to succeed on big stages. One such location might be Wimbledon. If Isner returns serve on the lawns in the manner espoused by Macpherson, he will be one of the prime contenders for the world’s most prestigious title.
Isner will be in Houston this week as the top seed at the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships. As he heads into the heart of the season at the majors over the summer, an enormously capable team will guide him. Macpherson will be at his side during the grass-court season from Queen’s Club through Wimbledon and for the hard-court season as well, culminating with the U.S. Open. Moller will be with Isner during the clay-court campaign and Gimelstob will be on call as well, even helping out during the Grand Slam tournaments. Cordial will be at all of the tournaments.
The entire team is upbeat.
As Macpherson concludes, “John will be even more formidable going forward. He has the best serve in tennis. He just has to take it one tournament at a time. He is capable of winning majors. There is no tournament that John can’t win. He is such a force. He has to let his tennis flow, and the results will be what they will be.”