U.S. Open mind: John Isner

The number 11 seed on staying mentally strong during marathon matches

John Isner, the 33-year-old tennis player entering the U.S. Open as the No. 11 seed, is having the best season of his pro career. This year, he won the ATP World Tour Masters title in Miami and reached the semifinals at Wimbledon earlier this summer.

Despite being armed with one of the most dominating serves in tennis, Isner has battled on-court nerves that have impacted his game. “Tennis is one of the most mentally-challenging sports there is—sometimes, you are your own biggest obstacle,” he says. “You don’t have teammates and you can’t be coached during a match, so the hardest thing is the isolation. You’re fighting for yourself.”

Standing 6-foot-10-inches, Isner has competed in the two longest matches in Grand Slam history, both on Wimbledon’s grass courts: In 2010, he beat Nicolas Mahut after 11 hours and five minutes of play and this year, he lost to Kevin Anderson after six hours and 35 minutes.

In those seemingly endless matches, mental strength is crucial. It’s one thing to serve hard or be quick on your feet and another to have the ability to maintain a competition mindset and focus on your own game, he says.

Furthermore spoke with Isner ahead of the U.S. Open about the mental hurdles he faces during marathon matches and the strategies he uses to overcome them.

The Hurdle: Pre-match nerves
The Strategy: Spending time alone

Before a match, I stretch and listen to music. Having some time to myself, some brief moments of isolation in which I visualize the way I want to execute my shots and move on the court, is very important. It helps me enter the competition mindset.

The Hurdle: Seizing up under pressure
The Strategy: Keeping mind and body at ease

I have a tendency to get tight and tentative during big moments, which has really hindered my ability to perform my best in the last few years. That was the reason I was losing matches. I’ve learned to meditate and keep a positive mindset in the most critical moments of a match. During big points, physically, I try to play as loosely and freely as possible.

The Hurdle: Thinking too far ahead
The Strategy: Staying in the moment

I try not to fixate on the final results while I’m playing because I know it’s not a productive headspace. Instead, I focus on every ball rather than the outcome of the point, the game, or the match. That allows me to go through the motions confidently and play to the best of my ability. I also always take a deep breath before each point to reset my mind. Obviously, when I’m out there playing for 11 hours, the end result crosses my mind, but I really try to bring myself back and stay in the present.

The Hurdle: Physical exhaustion
The Strategy: Going back to basics
It’s extremely difficult to stay completely focused when you’re fatigued. To keep my mental game strong, I fuel my body by hydrating a lot (with coconut water) and eating something (like bananas) during the match. I also focus on the basics of my game, and that helps me push through to the end.

The Hurdle: Break point anxiety
The Strategy: Playing with no regrets

The mental aspect I struggle with most happens during return games, when I’m trying to break my opponent. Sometimes I get a bit cautious with my play since in the back of my mind, I know if I break my opponent there’s a good chance I’ll win that set. Over the years, I’ve learned to not be so hard on myself if I’m unable to convert a break point into a win because I know there could be more chances later on during the match. Regretting shots, points, and games in tennis is dangerous, so I always just try to make each shot better than the last.

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