By Pritha Sarkar
PARIS (Reuters) – As American John Isner is still scarred by the “gross indoor green clay” he had to play on while growing up, anything he achieves on the more regal terracotta clay at Roland Garros seems like a well-earned bonus.
While two fourth round appearances in nine previous visits sums up his best results in Paris, for Isner the standout match remains a first round defeat he suffered in 2011.
That match happened to be against a certain Rafael Nadal and it was the first time the Spaniard, considered as the greatest ever claycourt warrior, was taken to five sets on red dirt.
“That was a great memory for me,” Isner told reporters following his 6-3 7-6(7) 7-6(7) win over compatriot Noah Rubin in the first round of the French Open on Tuesday.
“Going into that match, I hadn’t played well that year. And even though I lost, it actually set me up for the rest of the year because I started playing much better after that.
“Beating Nadal on clay is literally one of the toughest things in sports, period, and the stats bear that out,” added Isner about the champion who is the overwhelming favourite to win a record-extending 11th title in Paris.
While Isner’s Parisian ambitions might not be on the same stratosphere as Nadal’s, he and his band of American brothers did have something to celebrate on Tuesday.
A year after Isner and Steve Johnson were the only American men to survive round one, this year four have made it into round two from the 11 who started.
As the ninth seed, Isner is the leader of a gang that includes Johnson, Sam Querrey and Jared Donaldson.
Having won the biggest title of his career just two months ago — the Miami Masters — Isner is hoping to ride on that confidence to do well here too even though he admits clay is not his “preferred surface”.
“If I keep my head like I did today and have that same attitude and calmness on the court like I did in Miami, I do think I can do pretty well here,” he said.
“I’m not scared of anyone in the draw, but I know that I can lose to anyone if I’m not doing the right things. There’s no doubt about that.
“Anyone in this tournament can beat me. But I do think if I’m doing the right things I can be a handful.”
(Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, Editing by Ken Ferris)