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Filip Bondy: John Isner postpones retirement with win at U.S. Open

He walked into Louis Armstrong Stadium Tuesday afternoon, cap backwards, a gallant, fading dinosaur on a farewell tour. John Isner has represented everything good, and a lot that has been exasperating, about American tennis these past 16 years.

He heard some cheers, but the seats were far from filled while he dismantled Facundo Diaz Acosta, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (1), in a surprisingly one-sided, first-round match at the U.S. Open. The lack of rabid support was typical. Isner, 38, has never really been a big draw. That isn’t going to change now, so late in the game, even after he announced this would be his final tournament.

Isner is a gentle giant, a wonderful ambassador for the sport; not a large personality with a pretty game. He always got the very most from his gangly, 6-10 frame, making every inch of that wing span count for something. Isner never cried uncle in that epic, crazy, 11-hour Wimbledon match with Nicolas Mahut. He will retire as the all-time King of Aces, with more than 14,000 untouched rockets — and the fastest serve of all time at 157.2 mph.

There is much to admire about the guy: Isner always practiced diligently. He played Davis Cup. Five years ago, he reached the semifinals of Wimbledon, the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, and was ranked No. 8 in the world.

But that is as far as Isner ever advanced, and his fellow Americans could never do much better. In too many ways, Isner personified the frustrating achievement cap, the glass ceiling for our male players. All of them seem to lack some dimension, whether it is speed, power, flexibility, mental toughness, or creativity.

Isner had the power and the mental game. Everyone spoke about his serve, with its massive kick. He also had a laser forehand and a nimble volley. But Isner was already an outdated model when he arrived on the scene. By then, the days were passed when Andy Roddick, Goran Ivanisevic, or Richard Krajicek could hammer their way to a major title. The sport was already in the hands of more elegant, multi-talented artists, with the arrival of the Roger Federer era.

That hasn’t changed. The Americans are still out there, trying, failing. Nineteen U.S. men populated the brackets in Flushing Meadows, when the tournament started. There are a lot of young faces, all impressive, none of them quite gifted enough. Frances Tiafoe is the best of the bunch, better rounded than Isner, but he doesn’t stand much chance against the likes of Carlos Alcaraz — who will be around for quite some time.

In his heyday, Isner had his own set of European tormentors.

“When I was the top American, to be quite honest with you, American men’s tennis wasn’t what it was in the early 2000s,” Isner said. “But being the top American, just maintaining my ranking for a very long time, that is something I’m very proud of.”

Isner carried that U.S. banner for a decade with grace, a burden passed along to him by Roddick — the last American man to win a major, the 2003 U.S. Open. At the 2009 Open, Isner upset Roddick in a five-set, bash-apalooza. The baton was passed too late. By then, Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray were coming into their own. American eyes shifted to the Williams sisters.

Still, Isner won 16 tournaments in his career and he was out there again Tuesday, playing big against Diaz Acosta, a lefty Argentinian ranked 96th in the world. Isner did what he usually does. He served in in the 130s, whacked 11 aces, won some key points, and eventually settled things playing his 837th tiebreaker.

Isner had not always planned to retire this year, but his foot started hurting, the losses piled up, and his ranking sank down into the 160s. He now wears a brace on his left knee. He needed a wild card to enter the Open. The time was right to call it quits.

Unlike some players, he has a real life. Isner and his wife, Madison McKinley, are raising four children back in Dallas. They were on hand Tuesday, urging him on.

Despite this supportive family, he is a bit concerned about retiring.

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“I’m not going to sit here and act like it’s going to be easy,” Isner said, about quitting. “I think some players put on a brave face and say they can’t wait for retirement. I wanted to play this sport as long as I possibly could. There’s definitely going to be that void.”

It’s tough to say goodbye, for anybody. Venus Williams, 43, was still out there competing on Tuesday. On the Grandstand, another aging, stubborn player was still swinging away in earnest. Sir Andy Murray, 36, won his opening match in straight sets. His mom, Judy, was watching yet again. Judy Murray said she fully understood Isner’s mixed feelings.

“It’s tough for anybody to stop and park,” Judy Murray said. “Sport is full of ups and downs, every point. It’s exciting. My own kids [Andy and Jamie] already have achieved great things, but they keep going because they love the challenge and excitement.

“It’s been [Isner’s] whole life for such a long time, he’s bound to have a mix of feelings about the next stage of life,” she said.

That next stage has not arrived yet for Isner, who will play a second-round match on Thursday against fellow American Michael Mmoh. The USTA prepared a highlight video of Isner’s career, and a post-match ceremony, just in case this was his last singles match.

It wasn’t. Isner hugged one of his kids on the court and started sobbing.

“It’s not goodbye yet,” he said. “I’m still alive. You know, I’m actually feeling pretty good.”

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