Six years ago, American John Isner played a tennis match that stretched over three days. His 11 hour and 5 minute match against Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon ended with an absurd fifth set, won by Isner 70-68. To this day, it is still the longest tennis match ever played.
Though nowhere near as long in terms of actual court time, the grass courts of Wimbledon have once again forced Isner to play a match over several days. Isner lost his 4 hour and 25 minutes five-setter to Jo Wilfred-Tsonga, Tsonga taking the fifth set by a score of 19-17. That fifth set, which lasted over two hours by itself, tied for the fourth longest set in the Open era.
In 2010, the year of his first marathon match, Isner was just 25. He had not reached his athletic prime, but he was blessed with the youthful energy we all possesses at that age. This week, Isner was a 31-year-old veteran on the other side of his career arc, yet he was still able to go toe to toe in a match that must have brought PTSD flashbacks of that 2010 monstrosity.
It all begs the question: how in the world does Isner keep doing it? How does he keep slogging through tennis matches that would make a lesser man crumble? The answer lies in a unique strength and conditioning regimen that takes into consideration his 6-foot-10 frame, an oddity on the pro tour and the game of tennis in general.
Whenever he's not participating in tournaments, Isner is at Saddlebrook Resort in Tampa, Florida, training with tennis pro Rene Moller, working on both his body and his game. But Moller's typical regimen for his athletes, which includes outdoor track work as a part of a two-a-day workout schedule, doesn't work for Isner because of his height and the stress it puts on his legs.
"He's not going to be out on the track running a lot," Moller told Sports Illustrated earlier this year. "His body can't really handle that. He will be spending time in the gym—his cardio will be on the bike or treadclimber because they are low impact, but he will still be able to get his cardio work in, get strength work in and do shoulder rehab."
Out with running and in with low impact cardio has proved to be an excellent alternative for Isner's conditioning. But cardio isn't the only thing that helps him power through matches that feel interminable. Isner's strength training, and his ever-increasing knowledge of what his towering frame needs, have helped him immensely as well.
Isner once thought he needed to buff up his chest. Then he realized that a top-heavy frame isn't what you want when you play tennis professionally. So Isner, who told ESPN he weighed just 198 pounds during his freshman year of college, focused on his lower body, performing Bulgarian Squats and Glute Ham Raises as integral parts of his workouts. He's also a fan of Box Squats and Box Jumps, as seen in the below video from his Facebook page. Isner now weighs over 240 pounds, which he said was always his goal.
Combine his lower-body work with cardio and conditioning exercises that work for his large frame, and mix in his dedication to training at Saddlebrook between tournaments, and you can begin to understand how Isner keeps going after marathon matches. Here's hoping he doesn't actually have to play many more of them.
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