How the retiring John Isner changed Wimbledon forever

Mandatory Credit: Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports /

John Isner, a literal American tennis giant, announced last week that the US Open will be his last tournament. The 6’10” Isner played for nearly 18 years, and won a bunch of titles – both in singles and doubles – though a deep run at a Grand Slam always eluded him. His best finish was when he made the semifinals at Wimbledon in 2018. That would also be the year he would change the grass-court major forever.

John Isner did not have a well-rounded game. He never won a major because he didn’t have a good return game. Because he was so tall, he wasn’t able to move quickly around the court. But he excelled at one facet of the game perhaps more than anyone else who ever played, and that became a problem at Wimbledon.

In the 2010 first round at Wimbledon, John Isner defeated qualifier Nicolas Mahut. The match took three days to play. Why? Because neither player could beat the other’s serve. Isner won in five sets but won the tie-break of the fifth set 70-68. 70-68!

John Isner, who changed Wimbledon, announces retirement

In the match, Isner had 113 aces (the previous Wimbledon record was 78), but Mahut had 103 aces. The fifth set alone was longer than the previous longest match played at the tournament. In all, John Isner versus Nicolas Mahut took 11 hours and 5 minutes. While the match wreaked havoc with Wimbledon’s schedule and didn’t really make for great tennis, the tournament made no changes to make sure that kind of match didn’t ever happen again.

But that kind of match did happen again. Flash forward eight years to 2018. In the semifinals, Isner played Kevin Anderson and this match also went five sets. But the final set went to a tie-break and Anderson finally won 26-24. The match was the fourth-longest ever and the longest played on a center court at 6 hours and 36 minutes. This tournament caused Wimbledon to say enough is enough.

Beginning in 2019, Wimbledon made the fifth-set tie-break 12-12. This is basically the John Isner rule. But now Isner won’t be playing Wimbledon or anywhere else.

He will be missed. Isner always played with class and was a well-liked player on tour. He also holds the record for most aces at 14,411 (and counting). He was the top-ranked American for eight years between 2012 and 2020. His career-high ranking was number 8 and came in 2018.

While he never won a Grand Slam, he did win 16 singles titles and 8 doubles titles. He won two doubles titles as recently as 2022 and last won a singles title in 2021. He wasn’t a great player, but he wasn’t a bad one either. And he forever changed Wimbledon.

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