At 33 years old, John Isner is playing the best tennis of his life. Earlier this month, he advanced to his first Wimbledon semifinal, before falling to Kevin Anderson in a marathon 26-24 deciding fifth set.
Before he became a Top 10 star and a Miami Open champion, Isner was just another American youngster facing a choice: go to college or turn pro. He would attend the University of Georgia for four years, reaching the No. 1 ranking during his junior year. During his senior year, he helped the Bulldogs pull off an undefeated season, culminating with the NCAA Championship crown.
He sat down with Baseline to talk about his college experience.
Q: How did you make the decision to go to college?
There was actually no decision there for me. The thought of going pro never crossed my mind, so the only decision was where to go to school. I can't quite put my finger on it—just a gut feeling I had. Georgia felt like it was the right place for me.
Q: How did the college experience help you?
I matured in college. I got the partying out of my system in college. It's something that you can't afford to do on the pro tour. I enjoyed my time there. Georgia is an amazing school. I tried to lead as much of a normal college life as possible. Of course we had tennis, we had practice all the time, we had gym all the time, we had class.
Q: How did you manage your time at school and still stay focused on tennis?
I consider myself a pretty good competitor; I hate to lose. So one of the things that drove me to do great things at Georgia was just that I didn't want to lose. Also, my freshman year I was hurt quite a bit, I hurt my back pretty badly. I was determined not to let that happen again. From that point forward, I was stretching a lot, I was in the gym a lot. I became extremely diligent.
Q: Do you wish you'd turned pro earlier instead of seeing out all four years of your eligibility?
It's kind of crazy after my first few years, my freshman and sophomore years, I just went home and kind of chilled out whereas a lot of people that have pro on their mind at least play pro tournaments. I think it was sometime during the course of my junior year when I became the No. 1 player in college I knew that I wanted to go pro. I knew that I wanted to give it a shot.
I wanted to come back and finish at Georgia. I wanted to play NCAAs in front of my home crowd and I also wanted to win a national championship and that's what we did.
Q: What's your best memory from UGA?
My best was, of course, winning the team championship in Athens. I remember how perfect the weather was, the crowds were tailgating and we had 6,000 people at our matches. I hate to sound cocky but we were absolutely dominant. We dominated that whole year. We dominated in the finals, our fans were going nuts.
Q: And your worst?
A week later, I lost in the NCAA individual final, 7-6 in the third. That was, at the time and still maybe is to this day, the toughest loss of my career. But it was maybe a huge blessing in disguise because it made me work harder in the summer. I didn't rest on my laurels at all. I didn't have that guaranteed wild card into the US Open—of course I wanted that.
I earned the wild card by virtue of winning a lot of matches that summer. As opposed to just winning the NCAAs so that was a very good thing in retrospect to happen to me.
Q: Would you make the same decisions again?
Absolutely. For whatever reasons I made the right decisions. Whether it's luck or whatnot, but it all worked out for me. I wouldn't change a thing.
Q: What advice would you give someone facing the decision?
I'm always a proponent of playing college tennis. I think especially the way the men's tour is going, where the average age for someone in the Top 100 is 27, it's crazy. You have so much time. Going pro at 21 or 22— it's not too late.
Follow Nina on Twitter @ninapantic1.
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