John Isner launches his 140 mph serve

The finals at Newport were between 6’9″ John Isner and a much shorter Olivier Rochus. How short? Bud Collins said at a luncheon I attended that he was 5’4.” When I told him afterward that the ATP website said he was 5’6,” Bud said his number was right. Wikipedia says Rochus is 5’5.”

Regardless it was a tense match, even though the scores might not reflect it: Isner won 6-3 and 7-6 (6). I like watching both players. Isner reminds me of a slow-moving giraffe, and Rochus is the fast and wily fox. Isner has incredible height and power, and his 140 mph serve is totally dominating. When he puts a kick on it, the ball often bounced over Rochus’s head and extended racket. Even Ollie smiled sometimes…though it was almost impossible to break him.

Isner’s serve is so powerful and accurate—he had 22 aces in the two sets and, I believe I heard 72 in the tournament— that the hope was for Rochus to just hold his serve and somehow win in a tiebreaker. You can imagine what an achievement it was to lose 6-8 in the tiebreak. But Ollie kept delivering his slice backhand low over the net to John’s backhand, and picking up points as John would hit the small-bounce-on-grass ball into the net. Quite exciting.

Rochus (left) and Isner at Newport—2011

Rochus (left) vs Karlovic in an earlier tournament

The tallest player on the ATP tour, Ivo Karlovic, was also at Newport, though he lost early on. Ivo is 6’10,” and I stood next to him and also watched him play. Karlovic holds the fastest serve recorded in professional tennis, measured at 156 mph, and he is considered one of the best servers on tour. His height enables him to serve with high speed and unique trajectory.

Editor Patrick Hruby faces the Isner serve in 2008

Incidentally, Isner’s ATP ranking was 46 at the time of this tournament. Rochus was 73. Karlovic was 127. And Rochus has beaten Karlovic two of the three times they have played.

I found an adorable article describing editor Patrick Hruby’s 2008 stunt of facing the Isner serve and living to write about it:

For the first time in my writing life, I feel a genuine kinship with a shooting range target silhouette.

Isner tosses the ball. I bend my knees, shift my weight to the balls of my feet, make sure the racket face is positioned squarely in front of my groin. I hear a pop, see Isner’s lanky right arm swing down like a guillotine blade. The ball hits the ground in an eye blink—thud!—then rises toward me, appearing to accelerate while doubling in size. Before my brain registers the second sound, I’m acutely aware of a third: the thwack! of the ball striking my racket strings, right in the synthetic cat gut sweet spot, without which I now would be in considerable physical anguish…

A University of Virginia senior and the reigning college singles champion, Somdev Devvarman, beat Isner in last year’s (2007) NCAA final. The two became friends and even played doubles at an ATP tournament in Washington, D.C., last summer.

So, I asked, what’s the best way to break Isner’s serve?

“I never broke his serve,” said Devvarman, who captured the NCAA title in a pair of tiebreaks. “I didn’t even get to deuce. He dropped 24, 25 aces on me.”

Devvarman sighed.

“The motion on his serve is so good, so hard to read. You have absolutely no idea where he’s going on any serve. You’re always trying to guess.”