Numbers Say Isner Not Big On Clay

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Once again John Isner is the top-ranked American man. He’s reached a career-high #9 in the world. He has now won a Masters 1000 event. But the numbers do not point to high hopes for the 6’10” serving marvel–at least not on clay.

Some think Isner could pose a threat to 10-time French Open Champion Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros this year. Topspin on clay does make the ball sit up higher, presumably right in the big man’s strike zone, and Rafa’s got plenty of topspin. But that’s physics. It’s the elementary math that doesn’t add up for Isner on clay.

Here’s a look at some of the hard facts Isner faces this clay court season, according to statistics on the ATP website:

  1.  Lifetime record on clay. Isner’s career winning percentage on the dirt is just 53.9%.  Respectable… but not dominant. Compare it to his career winning percentage on hard court:  63.8%.
  2.  Not nearly as many matches on clay. Believe in the 10,000 hours theory? (Put in your time, and you’ll become a master at something.) The reality is that Isner has spent much less time on clay than on hard court. He has 115 ATP matches on clay. By contrast, Isner has played 417 matches on hard court–more than triple his output on the dirt.
  3. Rally length. Points go longer on clay. Players have more time to get to the ball, which translates to slightly higher rally lengths than on other surfaces. In extended exchanges, Isner’s opponents have more time and opportunity to hit to his backhand–by far his weakest stroke.
  4. Real estate. Isner’s best stroke is his serve–nobody would argue with that. He wins a stunning 91% of his service games. In fact, he’s at 91% on both clay and hard court. So what’s the problem? Returners can–and do–back up more to return his serve, which takes some of the edge off that powerful weapon. His serve is actually mitigated on the red surface. Rafa is not only the king of clay, he’s the king of backing way up to return serve. Alexander Zverev, who just won Munich on clay this past weekend, is another successful clay court player who manages the red real estate effectively against powerful opponents.
  5. Loneliest number. If you’re looking for any further evidence of why Isner isn’t a favorite to win the 2018 French Open, look no further than tournament titles. In his 13 championships, only one happened on clay–The U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships in 2013.  That’s American clay, which by all accounts is slightly different that European clay.

But fans of the well-liked, mild-mannered serve-bomber need not feel out of sorts this clay season. The grass courts await. Grass… that magical place where a slice serve becomes a switchblade. That’s the spot where Isner is more of a threat to pick off a favorite, like say, defending champion Roger Federer.

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