By Dave Gertler
(July 30, 2014) WASHINGTON, DC – The top seeds in the men’s draw at the Citi Open are all in action today, and with defending champion Juan Martin Del Potro still recovering from injury, as well as the pre-tournament withdrawal of would-be No.3 seed Grigor Dimitrov, fifth seeded American John Isner might be sensing the opportunity to finally raise the trophy of the tournament that has meant so much to him during his professional tennis career.
“For me, Washington has always been a special place,” said Isner during a USTA-organized conference call two weeks ago. “I’ve always played extremely well there, but I’ve never won it. I know I’ve made two finals and two other semi-finals, so I’ve always played well there, but haven’t quite finished it off. So hopefully this year will be different.”
“I was lucky enough to get a last-minute wildcard in 2007,” said Isner of his first appearance in Washington as a 22-year-old, “If I remember correctly, Fernando Gonzalez pulled out or something and I was able to get a wildcard. I was extremely lucky.” Having found success later in his career than most players, Isner’s nine career titles have all come in the last four years; five of them have been on hard courts, and all but two having come on American soil.
“I had nothing to lose,” he told of his debut at what was then the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, “And that’s how I played that week, and I made the finals. It helped me out so much. I sort of made a name for myself, and got my ranking up there pretty high really quickly.”
By making the finals that year, albeit one that he would lose to Andy Roddick, Isner’s dramatic rankings jump took him from 416 to 193 in the world.
Isner has since lost as many ATP finals as he has won. His most recent opponent in Washington, Del Potro, took a 4-0 winning record against the American into their 2013 final. One of those wins had in fact come in the quarterfinals of the 2008 Legg Mason. In 2009, Isner would lose once again to Roddick, this time in the semi-finals.
Along with Del Potro’s absence, the withdrawals before the tournament of No.3 seed Grigor Dimitrov, as well as Gael Monfils – a player who’s stopped Isner’s progress here in the past – has considerably opened up the field for the 29-year-old, who maintained that, “Even without (Del Potro), I think the field is stronger than it was last year,” said Isner. “There are a lot of, lot of good players. This is one of the toughest 500 tournaments in the world, no doubt about that.”
While Isner’s best recent result was reaching the second week of Roland Garros, world No.7 Milos Raonic made the semi-finals of Wimbledon a few weeks ago, and can now be considered amongst the favorites to take out any ATP 500 Series tournament, as can Kei Nishikori, and world No.5 Tomas Berdych, who accepted a late wildcard into the Citi Open two weeks before it began, and plays as tournament’s top seed. Berdych has played the tournament three times, making a semi-final and two quarterfinals, most recently in 2010.
“I think it’s more exciting for me,” said Isner about the high caliber of players in attendance at the Citi Open, “Me personally, I always want to go up against guys that are ranked higher than me. That means I’m progressing well within that tournament. But it’s good for the tournament, it’s good for everyone.” Isner’s first match will be a second-round encounter with compatriot Steve Johnson, while fellow big man Ivo Karlovic awaits the winner in the third round.
While Isner will be making his seventh appearance at the tournament since 2007, one dangerous floater will also be making his seventh appearance since first appearing in the 1998 Washington draw as a 17-year-old. 33-year-old Lleyton Hewitt – who refuses to discuss any plans for retirement – will be celebrating ten years since he won the 2004 Washington title. Hewitt’s second-round win against countryman Marinko Matosevic pits him against the winner between Jack Sock and Milos Raonic, who are billed as the third match on Stadium Court today. Also on Stadium Court today, Americans Sam Querrey and Robby Ginepri to face Kei Nishikori and Tomas Berdych respectively, while 4th seeded Frenchman Richard Gasquet takes on in-form Israeli Dudi Sela.
Dave Gertler is a tennis journalist, player and musician based in Sydney covering Citi Open for Tennis Panorama News. Follow his Twitter updates from the tournament @TennisNewsTPN, follow him on his personal Twitter @davegertler, read his blog, and listen to his podcast, Tennis Days .