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With one last fifth-set tiebreak, John Isner says goodbye to tennis

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NEW YORK — With a fresh change of shorts and his green Fila T-shirt swapped out for cream, John Isner took a deep breath.

He had white tape wrapped around his leg halfway to his knee and black braces strapped to both ankles. Through the first four sets of his second-round match at the U.S. Open, he had not always looked ecstatic to be lunging and grunting in the afternoon sun, 38 years old and grinding through another marathon match in a career defined by them. Then he would hit a winner, and the masses packed into the grandstand would chant his name, and Isner would ask for more while he still could, the competition making him glow.

When it finally ended, he pressed his face into a towel and held it there while his shoulders heaved.

Isner played the final singles match of his career Thursday at his home Grand Slam, losing in fitting fashion: a fifth-set tiebreaker. His 25-year-old compatriot Michael Mmoh, a wild card, beat him, 3-6, 4-6, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4, 7-6 (10-7), and will face Jack Draper in his third-round debut at the U.S. Open.

Frances Tiafoe, now a regular on the big stage, advances at U.S. Open

Mmoh spent a chunk of his on-court interview congratulating Isner on the close of a fruitful career — and good thing, too. When Isner finally stood in front of the microphone, he was so emotional he could barely make it through a sentence.

“This is why I’ve worked as hard as I have my whole life, to play in atmospheres like this,” Isner said after the crowd filled a second pause with cheers so Isner could compose himself. “Of course I may not win them all, as we know … but to play in front of this crowd and have the support I have is pretty special. So thank you.”

Isner was no world-beater, by his own admission, but he closes his career with 16 singles titles, more than $22 million in prize money and 14,470 aces, an ATP tour record and a hefty part of his legacy. A staggering 6-foot-10, he towered over most of his peers throughout his career and rocketed 113 aces, the single-match record, in an 11-hour 5-minute match that lasted the course of three days in the first round at Wimbledon in 2010. He beat Nicolas Mahut 70-68 in the fifth set on Court 18, which now bears a plaque to commemorate the epic.

Eight years later, he lost a Wimbledon semifinal to 6-8 Kevin Anderson, 7-6 (8-6), 6-7 (7-5), 6-7 (11-9), 6-4, 26-24. The final set alone lasted 2 hours 55 minutes and helped push the sport to adopt tiebreakers in decisive sets at Grand Slam tournaments.

Isner said this week he hadn’t thought much about his calculable impact on the sport. He has dwelled much more on the example he set during the period he spent as the standard-bearer for American men’s tennis. He finished ranked in the top 20 for 10 straight years from 2010 to 2019 and was the top American in eight of them.

“I do take — or did take — pride in being the top-ranked American for as many years as I was. At the same time, I also realized it wasn’t the 1990s where America had five guys in the top 10. There were certainly times when I was the only person playing Madrid and Rome, the only American there, for a couple years,” Isner said. “That was sort of weird for me. What my legacy is, I’m not sure. I just want to be remembered, most importantly from my colleagues, as a guy that I’m pretty easy to get along with off the court. I think I’ve had great relationships with the guys before me, my contemporaries on tour like Stevie [Johnson], Sam [Querrey] and Jack [Sock], then the young guys. I feel like I get along with all of them. I’m always going to be in their corner when I’m long gone.”

Isner, a North Carolinian, helped the University of Georgia to a 2007 national championship the year before he turned pro, beating Anderson on Court 1. He said he knew in spring this year, around the time of the French Open, that this season would be his last and he would retire at the U.S. Open.

It was his body that called time, not a waning love of competing or a desire to move into a new phase of life. He broke his wrist here in New York last year and has struggled with a lingering foot injury. His size and his age mean he hasn’t been able to commit to the level of physical work required to maintain a high ranking, aside from tennis skill.

Hours after his emotional, on-court interview — with a loss in the men’s doubles draw alongside Jack Sock in between — Isner cried again as he spoke about the close of his career.

“There’s, of course, a lot of disappointment with the result of my singles match today but at the same time a lot of gratitude as well, just to have one last time playing in an atmosphere like that,” Isner said. “It was very cool. As I said on the court, that’s why I work so hard. Hard to explain how bad my body feels. … I wanted one more U.S. Open and was able to get that.”

He retires during what feels like a positive spike on the electrocardiogram of American men’s tennis. This U.S. Open marks 20 years since Andy Roddick took the trophy here as the last American man to win a Grand Slam, and the tournament will feature six Americans in the third round, two of whom are ranked in the top 10: No. 10 Frances Tiafoe and No. 9 Taylor Fritz.

Last year Tiafoe was the first American male semifinalist at the U.S. Open since Roddick in 2006.

For Isner, a long respite from the tennis court is overdue. He plans to find a new passion, perhaps in business. He has spoken to friends such as Roddick, Mardy Fish and James Blake, who are thriving in retirement. He anticipates that adjusting to a new daily reality will be difficult.

“Tennis is a …” he said, tearing up again. “It’s been a huge part of my life.”

On Thursday, nothing was more difficult than saying goodbye.



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