By Matt Cronin, special to USTa.com
MELBOURNE, Australia -- The last time that John Isner played Czech Radek Stepanek, the veteran wiped him out on grass in Nottingham. Isner was a bit nervous coming into his second-round clash at the Australian Open against the former top-10 player because he knew that Stepanek is capable of mixing and matching shots with the best of them.
But the Isner who lost to Stepanek in 2008 is a shadow of the one who ended up trouncing the Czech, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-1, in the second round on Thursday. That Isner was merely a serve and big forehand. This version is in better shape, is smarter, is a much better volleyer and is more patient.
He's played enough matches now where, if he can hold serve for a good stretch, he can eventually figure out how to break. That's exactly what he did to even up the match at one set a piece, as he worked the point and made Stepanek strain.
"Up until 6-4, 5-4, the only thing I was doing was holding my serve," Isner said. "I finally played a good point, took off from there. I definitely started playing better and putting more balls in the court. But I think he was having trouble with the shadows. It was really tough out there. I didn't think it was going to be that easy. But I'll take it."
At age 32, Stepanek isn't as enthusiastic about playing four-hour-plus matches like he used to. Isner, who played the longest mach in history last summer against Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon, doesn't mind slugging it out for hours upon end.
But in the last two sets against Stepanek, he didn't have to, as the Czech lost control of his game and the North Carolina native played cleanly.
"In the first two sets, really, he didn't make any errors. The third and fourth were kind of littered with some. I was fortunate," said Isner, who boomed 39 winners in the match, including 20 aces.
The 6-foot-9 Isner's evolution as a player has been somewhat remarkable, and he's well on his way to becoming the best tall player in history. He cracked the top 20 for the first time at the end of 2010, despite not being able to really play at his best after he suffered a bad ankle injury in Cincinnati prior to the US Open. While he competed in four tournaments after the US Open, he never felt like he could do major damage, as he was taking painkillers to ease his pain. Once he went home in November, his ankle began to act up, so he put his rackets in his bag for a long stretch.
"My off season was different, and I didn't hit a ball because my ankle was messed up," said the 25-year-old. "So I spent a lot of time in the weight room and concentrated on my diet, and since I wasn't running around much, I ate a lot of salad for dinner. I've lost a few pounds and gained muscle."
Isner came Down Under early and won the Hopman Cup mixed team competition with fellow American Bethanie Mattek-Sands. He was unable to defend his title in Auckland when David Nalbandian took him down, but he was pleased he was able to get in some good practices in Melbourne.
When he's healthy and playing on a fast surface, Isner is nearly unbreakable. But if he's to be a top-10 player, he's going to have to improve his return game, as at his height, if he doesn't get enough significant balls into play, he can be yanked around from the baseline by the elite player.
"If I can average one break a set, that will bode well for me," said Isner, who reached the fourth round of the Aussie Open last year before falling to Andy Murray. "The more returns I get in play, the more pressure I'll put on opponents, and the better it will be for me. When I'm holding serve at the rate I am, just one more break of match is huge."
While due to his height it might appear that Isner should be a dyed-in-the-wool net rusher, he's not, and he and his coach, Craig Boynton, have been working for nearly two years on improving his approach shots, transition game and his play at the cords. Isner does have a huge forehand, but it's at the cords where he should make a fair portion of his living.
"I should hit and come in more, and I do like my forehand a lot, and sometimes I fall in love with it too much," he said. "Maybe if I spend more time at net, it will shorten points and force my opponent to pass me, which isn't easy."
Isner has a tall task in the next round, when he faces 2010 Australian semifinalist Marin Cilic, who was in a slump coming into the event but has played very well in his first two matches.
Only three Americans remain in the singles draw, which is pretty unusual at the Australian Open after four days, especially given that it is played on hard courts, a surface that Americans are brought up on. But the U.S. could have far less capable representatives than seven-time Grand Slam champ Venus Williams, 2003 US Open champion Andy Roddick (a four-time semifinalist in Melbourne) and Isner, who has now reached the third round or better in five of his last six Grand Slams.
"It's me and Andy left [on the men's side]," said Isner. "Mardy [Fish], you know, Robredo in the second round is a tough match. Sam [Querrey] lost a five-setter. Ryan [Sweeting] lost to Nadal. It would be better if we had more than two left in the final 32. But I think Andy has a good shot to do well here, and I also think I do. So I think we're both going to want to do a lot better than this, and it starts with him tomorrow. I'm just going to try to keep pace with him."