John Isner: Better on Clay or Grass?

Nick NemeroffCorrespondent IIDecember 8, 2012

KEY BISCAYNE, FL - DECEMBER 01:  John Isner of USA returns a shot from Nicolas Almagro of Spain during the inaugural Miami Tennis Cup at Crandon Park Tennis Center on December 1, 2012 in Key Biscayne, Florida.  (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)
Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

Whether he welcomes it or not, John Isner will always be remembered for his opening-round match in the 2010 edition of Wimbledon.

Of course, this was the setting where Isner ultimately overcame the resistance of the ever-trying Frenchman, Nicolas Mahut, 70-68 in the fifth set.     

Unfortunately for the American, if his career were to end today his match with Mahut would be his only significant memory of Wimbledon.  His propensity to succeed on the lawns of SW-19 has been far lower than expectations.  In fact, the big-serving Georgia native has only won two matches at Wimbledon in his career.

Both have come against Mahut, with Isner's second win occurring in 2011 (just a short year later) when Isner and Mahut were drawn to square off once again in the first round—an improbable set of circumstances to say the least. 

Despite his Wimbledon shortcomings, it hasn't been all tears for Isner on grass.

Overall, Isner's less-than-stellar Wimbledon results have contrasted with his two titles in the post-Wimbledon tournament held at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island in both 2011 and 2012 and his quarterfinal showing at the 2012 London Olympics. 

At the French Open, Isner's record isn't very good, as he has just a 3-4 overall record at Roland Garros compared to his 2-4 record at Wimbledon.  Of course, we'll excuse his 2011 first-round loss, as it came against no other than King of Clay Rafael Nadal in a five-set thriller.  

In parallel with his Wimbledon trials and tribulations, Isner has had wonderful successes on the red dirt outside of the French Open.  Despite losing to Nadal after being up two sets to one in the first round of the 2011 French Open, Isner really presented himself as a force to be reckoned with after being the first player ever to take "Rafa" to five sets at the French Open.   

In addition, Isner took out Roger Federer in Fribourg, Switzerland on an extremely eccentric clay court in four sets in the opening sequence of 2012 Davis Cup action.  For me, this was the best performance I've seen out of the big man to date.  To top this off, Isner carried the United States against France in the quarterfinals of Davis Cup after defeating Gilles Simon and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on the red dirt in Roquebrune, France.  

Isner has also finished as runner-up in two ATP 250 events held on clay in Belgrade (2010) and Houston (2012), losing to Sam Querrey and Juan Monaco, respectively. 

With all this said, is Isner better on clay or grass?


Argument for Grass

Isner's serve is a wonderful tool on grass.  The speed of his serve is enhanced by the smaller coefficient of friction the ball experiences on grass; thus Isner's serve travels at a higher speed after the bounce on grass than it does on a clay or hard court.  In turn, his opponents are left with shorter reaction times and will yield weaker replies. 

To compliment his serve, Isner's lethal forehand—which he often seeks to run around and flatten out—is significantly harder to defend against on grass than it is on clay.  This is because the lower bounce and increased pace provides less time for Isner's opponents to move to the ball.

Grass courts also allow Isner to minimize the length of rallies and present themselves as a worthy medium by which Isner can keep fitness out of the equation and execute his desired first-strike type of game. 


Argument for Clay

John Isner's second serve is among the elite second serves in tennis history regardless of the surface he plays on.   

The high-bouncing clay courts, as a result of the higher coefficient of restitution the ball experiences on clay, take Isner's kick serves to heights unseen on any other surface.   

Not only does Isner's second serve compensate for a lack of effectiveness on his first serve due to the reduced court speed, it provides him with an additional mechanism by which to win points through the serve and volley.

Isner's main advantage on clay is time.  

As someone who doesn't thrive upon his movement and foot speed, clay provides Isner adequate time to position himself and stabilize for his groundstrokes—most notably his forehand.  While his shots may move and penetrate through the court faster on grass, he has more time to hit these penetrating shots on clay.  Over the long run, the time he has to set up for his shots on clay will outweigh the rate of penetration he can achieve on grass.

In supplement, the clay court makes it hard for Isner's opponents to hold him accountable for his flagging foot speed, insufficient defensive skills and often ineffective return of serve.



I'll have to give the slight edge to Isner on clay. 

The two things that I ultimately feel put him ahead on clay is the return of serve and time.  Isner's return of serve is not the best, which is easy to tell if you have watched any of his matches.  On grass, he's going to have an even harder time to break than normal because the court is quicker and he has less time to react and judge the ball.

In addition, Isner strives upon playing first-strike tennis.  Normally, first-strike tennis is played with more comfort on grass because of the weaker replies and quicker advancement of shots through the court.  But for Isner, regardless of the reply of the serve and court penetration, clay definitively provides him with increased time to either run around his forehand or serve and volley, whereas on grass he has a harder time getting around the ball.

Isner's best wins on clay (Federer, Tsonga and Simon) also surpass his best wins on grass (Tipsarevic, Harrison and Hewitt). 

Let me know what you think—leave a comment below, and tell me whether or not I got it right.