The top-ranked American man in tennis, John Isner, fielded some unique questions this week at the Citi Open when a group of kids were brought into his pretournament news conference. After he answered queries about whether he plays the popular video game Fortnite (“No”) and what it’s like to be able to dunk (“Not that cool when you don’t have to jump that high”), one youngster asked the 6-foot-10 Isner who his rival was here in Washington.
Isner paused, cocked his head to the right and sighed before landing on Alexander Zverev.
“He’s the top-ranked seed here, he’s a really good player, and he’s the defending champion,” Isner said. “He’s kind of the guy we’re all chasing.”
After Thursday, Zverev remains the player to beat thanks to his 6-3, 7-5 victory over older brother Mischa that sent him to the Citi Open quarterfinals. But Isner fell short in his pursuit: The No. 2 seed fell to American wild card Noah Rubin, 6-4, 7-6 (8-6), in a second-round match that had been moved to Thursday because of rain.
While Zverev (who will play No. 9 seed Denis Shapovalov or No. 7 seed Kei Nishikori on Friday) was sharp and moved nimbly in his match, Isner might welcome the extra rest he has coming. The 33-year-old is coming off a win at a tournament in Atlanta on Sunday that required four victories in four days in heat and humidity. On Thursday, his usually dominant first serve was off — he had five double faults against just nine aces — and he moved slowly at times, even for a player not particularly known for fluidity on the court.
“You never want to lose, but you have to try to find the silver lining in things, and for me, I think this could be a good loss,” said Isner, who is ranked ninth in the world. “Sometimes things can be a blessing in disguise. That’s how I have to look at it now.”
Isner, as much as he wanted to win his first title in Washington in 10 years playing the tournament, also wants to be ready for higher-level tournaments in Toronto and Cincinnati, as well as the U.S. Open later this month.
He started the year 1-6 in singles play before turning his season around in March, going on a run in Miami to win his first ATP Masters 1000 event, which is one level below a Grand Slam. He hurdled two top-10 opponents, Juan Martin del Potro and Zverev, along the way.
He hasn’t let up since, and a career-best semifinal appearance at Wimbledon in July and his 14th career title — including five in Atlanta — have made for a busy summer.
“I think, to my credit, I’ve kept my foot on the gas pedal since Miami. I didn’t really take a huge sigh of relief or a big deep breath or anything like that; I kept working and kept putting my head down,” Isner said. “Just going to work, and I’ve been playing well ever since.”
Isner has been playing so well that he has called this the best tennis of his 14-year career. Perhaps it’s prudent of him, then, to appreciate what a few extra days of rest could do for his chances of capturing a first Grand Slam title this month in New York.
Isner, like all of the players in the Citi Open this week, endured more than one rain delay before finally getting on court Thursday afternoon. The weather has been brutal at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center. Rain has delayed or canceled matches every day of the main-draw competition, and it started to fall again Wednesday night just as Isner and Rubin were set to play on Stadium Court. They were rescheduled for an afternoon time slot Thursday, but torrential rain caused a five-hour delay at the start of the day.
Fans who arrived at 2:30 p.m., when play was set to begin, either huddled under tents at concession stands or left altogether as the rain partially flooded walkways and drenched courts. Players who arrived to warm up sat idly in the player lounge or locker room.
“It’s not ideal, but we’re all dealing with it,” Isner said. “It’s mentally taxing, just sitting around hours on end, hoping the rain stops. And then you don’t expect it to stop, then it does — then holy crap, you’re on in 30 minutes.”
It could have been worse for Isner. Since the weather has condensed the schedule, Rubin’s third-round match against No. 16 seed Andrey Rublev was scheduled to be played later Thursday night — and Rubin lost, 6-3, 6-2.
“He’s got to play a match in about an hour,” Isner said before the match. “I don’t know what I would have done if I won.”