With the cannonball serve, 3-6 record on clay in 2011 and frequent tweets about pro wrestling, it's rather obvious that Big John Isner is an American. What's less obvious, in a tennis world dominated by the near otherworldly exploits of the Big Four, is that this American is in the midst of a breakout season that could see him joining the Top 10 before he sets foot on the European clay.
Isner came into the tournament ranked 11th, a career high, but with a sizable 590 point gulf (2,710-2,120) between himself and World No. 10 Janko Tipsarevic. The American, best known for his 3 day, 11 hour, first round slog versus Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon two years back has reached the semifinals of the last two ATP Masters Series events. His performance in the desert to date has halved that gap with a net 295 point gain over the 10th ranked player.
Today, he faces the ultimate test at the moment, aka Novak "Robo-Nole" Djokovic for a berth in the BNP Paribas Open final. The 26 year old North Carolina native will stand across the net from the World No. 1 for only the third time, Djokovic leads 2-0. The first meeting was an epic five setter in the 2010 Davis Cup first round, which the Serb won 6-4 in the fifth and final set on clay. Their next meeting was at the end of 2010 at the China Open, which Djokovic also won 7-6, 6-2. Should Isner find a way to get his first win over Djokovic, he would be just 55 points short of joining the ATP Top Ten for the first time.
To win, and it's not out of the question, it's pretty obvious, Isner will have to both serve well and keep Djokovic from getting a read on that monster stroke. If the two-time defending champ locks in for even one game, the odds of an Isner victory fall through the floor. To the American's advantage, Djokovic isn't playing his best ball right now. He needed three sets to subdue unheralded Spaniard Pablo Andujar before finally finding his form against Nicolas Almagro in the quarterfinals. In all honesty, Djokovic seems to have worn a tired hangdog look since the US Open, but he's found a way to win when he knows it counts. To wit, Djokovic's only title since that US Open victory capped a 10-title 2011, this year's Australian Open. If the American pulls off the same unexpected victory that Andy Murray managed in Dubai, suddenly you have to like Isner's prospects for a big season a whole lot more than you would have at the start of 2012.
Nonetheless, Indian Wells isn't make or break for Isner. The big man only stands to defend 90 points in Miami. If he takes his talents to Key Biscayne the way he's taken them to Indian Wells, he will comfortably reach the exclusive ATP top ten for the first time. If not, well, let's not forget his last two matches on clay, beating Roger Federer in the Davis Cup in an away tie in Switzerland and a five set first round loss to Rafa Nadal at Roland Garros.
John Isner, about to be Top 10 very soon, that's all but a given. I'll go a step further, once he gets there, he'll still have room to rise.