In 2007, his first professional season, Isner received a wild card entry into D.C.’s Citi Open, and he rode it all the way to the championship match. A loss to former World No. 1 Andy Roddick did nothing to deter the then-22-year-old: Isner was on the rise.
And so, six years later — and with a more established Isner now ranked 21st — it’s safe to say that the Citi Open still holds a special place in his heart.
“It’s a surface that I like, and on top of that, you’re playing in the nation’s capital,” Isner said in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday. “It’s an absolutely incredible place, I’m always in a good mood there, the hotel is amazing — everything about the tournament is so much fun.
“I’ve really enjoyed myself there, and I think that has a lot to do with my success at that tournament.”
That first year, after all, wasn’t the only time in which the 6-foot-10 Isner has had success at the event formerly known as the Legg Mason Classic. Following a 2010 tourney in which he reached the third round, Isner turned things up a notch in his most recent appearance in 2011.
And, in a familiar twist, it would come with the former Bulldog as the underdog.
Seeded 11th — six lines lower than the year before — Isner began his run with a straight-set win over Germany’s Tobias Kamke, setting up an all-American third-round match-up with occasional doubles partner James Blake. Isner would win in three frames, his two set wins both coming on tiebreaks, going on from there to upset No. 3 seed Viktor Troicki to reach the semis.
The message was clear: That first time was no fluke.
“In 2007, it was an unbelievable trip, and I’ll never forget reaching the finals, but the more I think about it … I wasn’t that good yet. I wasn’t at that level that I performed at there. I kind of just had a crazy wave of momentum,” Isner said.
“I’ve gotten a lot physically stronger, and I think my game definitely has improved in a lot of areas,” he added. “I’ve also become a lot more mature since then, too.”
With that maturity, though, have come a few injury scares. As recently as last month — three years removed from his record-breaking marathon match with Nicholas Mahut — Isner was forced to retire at Wimbledon due to an apparent left knee injury, conceding his second-round match to France’s Adrian Mannarino.
And while that knee has hampered him throughout his career, Isner clarified to reporters that the source of discomfort has really been his quad muscle. Whatever it may have been, Isner admitted that it flared up on Sunday in Newport, R.I., where he fell in three sets to Lleyton Hewitt in the semifinals.
The humidity in Newport is what Isner says triggered the relapse, but it’s tough to imagine that humidity levels won’t be even higher when the Citi Open starts July 27. But for now, Isner insists that he’s healthy, noting that he wouldn’t commit himself to play unless he were “100% fit.”
It certainly doesn’t hurt, of course, that he has a little extra incentive for showing well in D.C.
Isner doesn’t shy away from the fact that he plays much better on American soil, and such tournaments are growing fewer and farther between in recent years. The Citi Open, gearing up for its 45th iteration, is one of 11 ATP World-500 events, but it’s also the only one taking place in the U.S.
And, once again, Isner is determined to make it count.
“I’ve had such unbelievable memories [in D.C.],” he said. “These are tournaments I don’t want to miss.”