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By Chris Oddo Photo Credit: Martin Barreiro

John Isner - 2012 US Men's Clay Court ChampionshipsSTATISFACTION is Tennis Now’s weekly look inside the numbers of professional tennis. This week we will take a look at
John Isner’s remarkable success on clay thus far in 2012.
 
 
Remarkable Turnaround
 
Isner has changed his clay-court fortunes this year. He owned a career record of 15-21 on the dirt coming into the year, and now, after a blistering start that featured two top ten wins and a final appearance in Houston, he’s 22-22 lifetime on the dirt.
 
What’s been the difference for Isner? Anybody who has watched him can see that he’s embraced big man tennis on a clay court. Isner, much like other big men Robin Soderling, Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin Del Potro, possesses the rare ability to hit through a clay court. This year Isner has embraced that fact and he’s made life miserable for his opponents, particularly in his service games.
 
 
Serving Lights-Out
 
One surprising—and perhaps alarming—trend has emerged this year for Isner on the clay: not only is he serving well, he’s actually getting more out of his serve than he does on the hard courts.
 
Isner has been a beast while serving on the dirt this year, winning a remarkable 95 percent of service games. A lot of that can be contributed to his ability to dictate points with his lethal forehand, which contains equal parts power and precision. But is it really feasible to think that Isner can keep up that torrid serving pace when he hits the European clay in a few weeks?

 
Isner, 2012, On Hard Courts:
 
Matches
% Service Games Won
Record
% Return Games Won
19
88
13-6
12
 
 
Isner, 2012, On Clay Courts
 
Matches
% Service Games Won
Record
% Return Games Won
8
95
7-1
9
 
 
The Return: Still Weak
 
Another interesting stat emerges when we look at Isner’s return numbers on clay (see table above): he’s actually doing worse on the dirt. It’s surprising because you would think that the big man would benefit from the extra time he gets on the slower surface. But clearly his opponents are able to expose Isner’s limited mobility just as much—maybe more—by using the serve to take Isner out of position on the clay.
 
There is another angle to take here, however. Perhaps Isner, realizing that his serve can’t be stopped on clay, is just picking his spots to go for his returns, in order to save his energy for his service games and for the crucial games in the later portions of sets.
 
This could be true. But no matter the reason, it’s hard to imagine that winning less than one out of every 10 return games on clay will lead Isner on a deep run at the French Open.
 
 
 
Can Tiebreak Success Last? 
 
Isner is 6-1 in tiebreaks on clay this season, including a MASSIVE tiebreaker win over Roger Federer in the third set of their Davis Cup match in February. This is pretty remarkable when you consider that he’s 9-4 on hard courts in breakers this year, and 135-78 for his career in all tiebreakers. His 86% success rate in the breakers (he’s outperforming his career stats by a lot) has a lot to do with his success on clay this year, and any reversion to the mean will make things harder for Isner this spring in Europe.
 
 
Isner’s tiebreaker success on clay, 2011 vs. 2012
 
 
2011 clay record
2011 tiebreak, clay
2012 clay record
2012 tiebreak, clay
4-7
7-8
7-1
6-1
 
 
What Does the Future Hold?
 
It’s clear that Isner is a vastly improved player on clay this season. His serve, always a weapon, has been a big reason. But probably more than anything else it is Isner’s forehand that has done the most damage for him on clay. His ability to swoop in behind his serve and knock off winners and/or force errors consistently has made him almost impossible to break this year.
 
He’s been so effective that he currently has the second-highest clay-court winning percentage among the tour’s top 10 win leaders on clay. The only player to hold a better clay record is David Ferrer, a more classic clay-courter whose game is return-based and whose record currently stands at 12-1 on the dirt.
 
Still, as good as Isner has been on clay, his weakness in the return game and the fact that he can’t win every breaker he plays for the rest of the year, will probably bring him back to the middle of the pack a bit by the end of the spring.
 
 
Top ten win leaders on clay, winning percentage
 
Player
2012 Clay-Court Record
Percentage
Nicolas Almagro
15-3
.833
Carlos Berlocq
12-6
.667
David Ferrer
12-1
.923
Juan Monaco
11-3
.786
Stan Wawrinka
9-4
.692
Albert Ramos
9-5
.645
Fernando Verdasco
8-4
.667
Jeremy Chardy
8-4
.667
John Isner
7-1
.875
Pablo Andujar
7-4
.636

 

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