Philadelphia, PA – Up until this year, John Isner was best known for being very tall and playing in the longest match in tennis history.
But that is changing.
Don't look now, but "Big" John has quietly reached the Top 10 for the first time in his blossoming career. The 6-foot-9 North Carolina native currently sits at No. 10 after reaching his first career ATP Masters final on Sunday.
Sure, Isner wound up losing to the great Roger Federer in straight sets in the BNP Paribas Masters finale in Indian Wells, Calif., but it was his journey into the final that got people (tennis fans and so-called tennis experts) talking.
The 26-year-old Isner, who moves fairly well for a large man, is now actually ranked just ahead of fellow skyscraper and former U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro after winning no less than five matches in the California desert, including one of the biggest wins of his career in the semifinals.
On Saturday, Isner stunned world No. 1 superstar Novak Djokovic in a three-set nail-biter, 7-6 (9-7), 3-6, 7-6 (7-5). The reigning Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion Djokovic was also the reigning Indian Wells titlist at the time and was absolutely expected to get past Isner at the beautiful Indian Wells Tennis Garden. But nobody told Isner.
Unfortunately for the American slugger, he was unable to best a third-seeded Federer in the final ... but it seemed like victory was his already anyway.
Note: Isner has reached at least the semis at the last two Masters events, as he also turned the trick in Paris back in November.
Federer exacted a bit of revenge on the Greensboro native Isner, who recorded perhaps the biggest win of his career last month in Federer's native Switzerland.
Isner and Federer met in Federer's hometown of Basel in an opening-round Davis Cup tie between the United States and the Swiss, who were the heavy favorites, not only because they were playing at home, but also because the matchup was being staged on the Americans' most-dreaded surface -- red clay.
In stepped Isner.
The U.S. team stunned the Swiss by taking the opening singles rubber when Mardy Fish topped Stan Wawrinka in a grueling five-setter. But Federer was then expected to right the ship in the second match.
Isner shocked Federer, the Swiss faithful and the entire tennis world by dousing the mighty Fed in four sets, this after Federer raced out to a lead by taking the opening set. Isner captured the next three sets to astonish Federer and the United States ultimately went on to a confusing 5-0 sweep of the Swiss on their home soil.
The surprising Isner has posted a 14-5 record to this point in 2012, including wins over the pair of Top-10 stalwarts -- Djokovic and Federer. And in his last three tournaments, the American has reached a quarterfinal, a semifinal and a final, respectively.
I'm sensing a pattern.
Could his next event produce a title? We'll have to wait and see, considering he'll compete in another star-studded Masters tourney over these the next two weeks in Key Biscayne, Fla.
Isner starred collegiately from 2004-07 at the University of Georgia, where he became the school's all-time leader in both singles and doubles victories. He also earned coveted All-America honors in each of his four years and led the Bulldogs to the 2007 NCAA men's tennis championship.
And two years ago at Wimbledon, Isner and Nicolas Mahut locked horns in the most epic match in the sport's history. Isner needed three days to finally beat the French Mahut, 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (7-3), 70-68. That's right, a mind-boggling, record-smashing 138-game fifth set, as there is no fifth-set tiebreak at the Big W. The opening-round match time at the All England Club's Court No. 18 wound up being 11 hours, 5 minutes and featured 216 aces, including a record (of course) 113 from the massive-serving Isner.
As you would expect, the match brought Isner a measure of fame, particularly back here in the States, where he had guest appearances on shows like the "Late Show with David Letterman" and "Good Morning America." He also threw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Yankees game in New York, and he and Mahut won a 2010 ESPY Award for Best Record-Breaking Performance in sport.
Of course, Isner and Mahut made some more headlines last year when the 2011 Wimbledon draw was revealed, as the two were somehow pitted against each other in the first round there yet again. But this time around the match was completed without drama with Isner prevailing in one day, in straight sets.
The six-year pro still only boasts three career titles at the ATP level, going 3-6 in his finals to this point, but you would have to think the Tampa resident will add to that total (the titles one, that is) this year. His first career title came in Auckland, New Zealand, two years ago, and he produced a pair of championships, on grass in Newport, R.I., and a hardcourt in Winston- Salem, N.C., last season.
The 2011 U.S. Open quarterfinalist Isner trains in Tampa with the likes of fellow pros James Blake and Mardy Fish, who, for now, is the highest-ranked American at No. 8 in the world.
Before too long, the highest-ranked American just might be Big John.
And barring an unusual circumstance, Isner will represent the United States in Davis Cup once again when the Americans visit France in the quarterfinals next month.
Isner also appears to be on track to play for the United States at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, where the tennis will be staged at the site of his historic 2010 match ... the All England Club.