If you want an inaugural tennis tournament to become a hot (pun intended) item, you can hope for no more than the presence of the most famous Marathon Man since Dustin Hoffman. You can hope for no more than having the towering John Isner, illustrious former Georgia Bulldog, grace your event with more of his endurance work.
“We’ve lived a little bit of a charmed life the last month,” said Bill Oakes, the tournament director of the Atlanta Tennis Championships. Since Isner’s epic Wimbledon defeat of Nicolas Mahut — it carried over three days, ending June 24, and lasted 11 hours, five minutes — the first ATC had been able to bill as the venue for Isner’s homecoming, and folks around here tend to like their Bulldogs.
Heck, even Oakes, who’s a Tech man, likes this Bulldog. And he should: Isner’s participation has taken this modest tournament — only one of the world’s 18 top-ranked men took part — and rendered it locally relevant.
“It certainly helped [the ATC] that John was able to take tennis off the sports pages and put it across all media — the lifestyle section, Letterman,” Oakes said.
Isner will play in Sunday’s final after another great escape. He needed two hours and 29 minutes to dispatch Kevin Anderson on the hottest day in the history of humankind. Think it wasn’t? ESPN reported that the oncourt temperature ranged from 114 degrees, which is a blast furnace, to 147, which is Satan’s rec room.
(Personal note: After observing the first two sets from courtside, this correspondent noted that his iPhone was flashing a warning — it could not be accessed because of “overheating.” The Apple product is indeed a smart phone.)
As Isner was trying to close out Anderson in straight sets, he paused before serving and gestured to the heavens. He wasn’t asking for divine intervention. He was urging an oncoming cloud to hurry up and blot the sun.
“I’ve rooted for clouds before,” Isner said, and he needed this one badly. He had sagged in the second set, which he lost in a tiebreaker, but the arriving coverage overhead and the hugely pro-Bulldogs crowd carried him through.
Fittingly enough, Isner notched match point just as sirens were sounding a storm warning. Not that Isner was about to stop in the middle of his serve. “I was just trying to get the heck off the court,” he said, and finally he did, drama again in his wake.
And the ATC, which was franchised at the late-late date of Dec. 17, 2009, needed a good show. Said Oakes: “You only get one chance to make a first impression,” and early reviews have been positive. Both the Friday and Saturday night sessions were sold out, and Isner drew a near-capacity crowd of mad Dawgs to his almost-noonday semifinal match.
Said J. Wayne Richmond, general manager of the U.S. Tennis Association’s Open Series: “I knew [the event] would be really good. I didn’t know it would be awesome.”
It had been nine years since last a professional tennis tournament — as opposed to a one-shot exhibition — graced this city, and that has always seemed passing strange. Drive down any Atlanta street and you’ll pass 10 SUVs en route to an ALTA match. But the ATC could be around for a while. Oakes said the event will be back here next summer, if not exactly “here” here. (The Atlanta Athletic Club plays host to the PGA, one of golf’s Big Four, in 2011 and might not have space for both pro sports.)
But you have to figure ours is a big enough city to find a place for John Isner, who worked 516 fewer minutes Saturday than he had those three legendary days in London. Afterward he was asked which was tougher — this match or Wimbledon. And he said, “Probably Wimbledon.”
Probably, the man said. Probably.