NEW YORK — John Isner didn’t get the chance to play in Arthur Ashe Stadium at last summer’s U.S. Open. When he walked onto its court Tuesday for his first-round match, the crowd raucously applauding him, he remembered how playing on this stage, the grandest at the U.S. Open, is one of the perks of being the top American men’s player.
Everything else about the job description can be a burden for Isner. Isner hears about the decline of U.S. tennis quite a bit, but managed to put it out of his mind in a win over fellow American Marcos Giron, 7-6 (7-5), 6-2, 7-6 (7-2).
As the No. 13 seed, Isner is expected to advance, and with that expectation comes greater pressure — especially on a day when three of his fellow Americans were ousted.
“I get the brunt of it a lot, because, you know, if I win and play well it’s because I have a big serve and I can hit my forehand pretty well and that’s it,” Isner said. “But if I lose, it’s only because that’s all I can do. So, I mean, sometimes I feel like I can’t win no matter what.”
Giron looked across the net and didn’t see the disappointment of American men’s tennis. He saw the player keeping it afloat, the only one consistent enough to stay around the top 20 for three years.
The second-highest ranked American in the tournament, No. 47 Donald Young, lost in his first-round U.S. Open match Monday.
“He does a good job with all of the pressure because I’m sure he gets hammered all of the time about why isn’t there a higher ranked American,” Giron said. “He’s obviously doing the best he can.”
Isner and Giron happened to wear matching outfits — a white hat with a white polo and navy shorts. But there was no mistaking who was who — the 6-foot-9 Isner towered over the 5-10 Giron. Giron didn’t play small in the first set, holding serve and staving off break points to force a tiebreaker.
Isner had set point with a 5-4 lead, but Giron won the next three points to win the game. When Isner had set point on Giron’s next service game, Giron again survived, but was ultimately overpowered by Isner’s booming serve in the tiebreaker.
“I’ve never dealt with a serve like that before,” Giron said. “It really kind of showed. I didn’t get any break points, and I really wish I could have.”
After the close first set, Isner got up a break in the first game of the second, celebrating with two fist pumps in the direction of his coach. After an up-and-down summer on American courts, the top American needed that break.
He committed to playing every stop in the U.S. Open series, and he had mixed results. Isner advanced to the quarterfinals in Newport, R.I., then won Atlanta, getting the hard court season off to a strong start. But then he lost in his first match in Washington, to fellow American Steve Johnson, and suffered another early exit in Toronto. He won two matches in Cincinnati before losing to Andy Murray, and retired from the tournament in Winston-Salem, N.C., because of an ankle injury.
For Giron, who earned a wild-card berth to the U.S. Open by virtue of winning the NCAA singles championship, Isner was someone he had looked up to through his college career.
If Isner, the world No. 15 player, could have success going to college first instead of playing pro, then so could he, Giron thought. Giron, who recently finished his junior year at UCLA, decided to turn pro before finishing school.
In his Grand Slam main draw debut, Giron got a taste of what play was like on the professional level. Once Isner got the early break in the second set, he held serve and won comfortably.
But Giron rallied in the third set and savored the moment of playing on Ashe, waving his arms up and down after winning an impressive point to draw more applause from the crowd.
Giron forced another tiebreaker in the third set, but Isner’s serve again was overpowering. After the loss, Giron stayed on the court to take in the atmosphere one last time before departing.