Isner’s triumphant homecoming

by Keith Barber

John Isner stretched his remarkably long arms toward the blue sky above the Wake Forest Tennis Center in a gesture that expressed both triumph and gratitude after his three-set victory over Julien Benneteau of France during the singles championship of the inaugural Winston- Salem Open last Saturday. Isner, a Greensboro native, was acknowledging the support of his very vocal cheering section whose members had the words “GO-JOHN-GO” spelled out on their white T-shirts.

During his post-match interview with a CBS reporter, Isner graciously embraced the hundreds of fans who cheered him on throughout the weeklong event.

“These fans were incredible,” Isner said. “I never thought there would be a tournament in my hometown and now that there was one, I was going to come here and play in it. I wanted to do well and of course, I did. I won the tournament.”

Isner described the Winston-Salem Open as “perfect preparation” for the US Open, which kicked off on Monday in Flushing, NY.

“I feel like I can do some damage [at the US Open],” Isner said. “I’ll be taking a five-match win streak into the tournament. Confidence is something that’s very hard to come by and I have it right now. I look forward to playing my best tennis up there.”

Isner is certainly climbing the charts on the ATP World Tour.

After Saturday’s victory, the Page High School graduate is now ranked No. 22 in the world. Pretty impressive for a young man who grew up playing on the courts of Greensboro and never considered having a pro career.

“My only aspirations were to go to college,” Isner said. “I figured I could do that staying in Greensboro and it worked out for me. I got a scholarship to the University of Georgia — that’s where I got a lot better and found out I was good enough to play in the pro leagues.”

The soft-spoken Isner achieved a place in tennis history for his marathon victory over Nicolas Mahut of France during the opening round of Wimbledon in 2010. Isner’s incredible 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68 victory over Mahut lasted more than 11 hours, the longest match of all time.

In the inaugural Winston-Salem Open, Isner could not have scripted it any better. His victory over Benneteau clocked in right at two hours, but the Frenchman presented a serious challenge. The remnants of Hurricane Irene played a major role as swirling winds affected the speed and trajectory of the ball. Isner’s most potent weapon, failed him in the early going as Benneteau took the first set, 6-4.

However, in the second set, Isner began to show patience and it paid immediate dividends. A hush fell over the hundreds in attendance as they watched him bounce the tennis ball between his legs three times before each serve. Isner composed himself and broke Benneteau in the eighth game of the set, seizing a 5-3 advantage. He then began unleashing his trademark monster serves that range between 125 mph and 140 mph and knotted the match at one set apiece.

Isner broke Benneteau early on in the third and final set, showing patience on long rallies rather than going for impossible winners. A 139 mph serve from Isner capped off an impressive comeback and a poetic ending for the first-ever Winston-Salem Open tennis tournament. Isner pumped his fist and received a standing ovation from the enthusiastic crowd.

“The fans have really shown that tennis needs to be here in Winston- Salem for this year and many years to come,” tournament director Bill Oakes said during the trophy ceremony.

The hundreds in attendance roared their approval. When it came time for the championship trophy, the ever-humble Isner thanked his family and coaches for their support.

Claire Powell, general manager of Champion activewear, handed off the glass trophy to Isner and Oakes presented a winner’s check for nearly $75,000.

“I’ll be looking forward to coming back here in the coming years,” Isner said. “Thank you for all you’ve done.”

Isner handled the victory like a professional, giving one more thanks to the fans as well as local sponsors Flow Motors and BB&T for underwriting the event. Professional tennis appears to have a bright future in Winston-Salem as long as talented and gracious players like Isner continue to flourish on the ATP Tour and the community rallies behind this marvelous annual event.