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Isner undaunted by tall task

Federer looming over 6-9 rookie

Ex-Georgia star John Isner has punched out two opponents so far. Ex-Georgia star John Isner has punched out two opponents so far. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

NEW YORK - Surreal.

Nice, classy word, surreal. But I don't recall any tennis laborers using it - until that 6-foot-9-inch bolt from the blue, Jonathan Isner, landed from a cloud hovering above Flushing Meadow.

Having descended unannounced on the US Open to wreak a little havoc, young Isner (pronounced Iz-ner) was heard to utter "surreal" at least twice. He was talking about himself and his situation here, a situation as likely as "Alibi Alberto" Gonzales talking straight.

While most people on the tour are suspicious and wary of 22-year-old Jonathan Robert Isner of Greensboro, N.C., because he is within hours of holding a genuine college degree, he is not apologetic. In a sport loaded with high school dropouts, a college degree seems like a Nobel Prize.

He said, "I wasn't out here grinding on the pro tour at 19. Didn't seem like too much fun to me. That's why I chose to go to college. I never beat anybody good as a junior. A lot of people think that when you go to college, a chance at a professional career is over. But that's not the case."

Not if you look at (and up) into the jovial face of Isner, whose pro bio stretches all the way back to July when he lost his debut to a guy almost as tall, 6-7 Dick Norman, at Newport. So he tried the bush leagues for two tournaments, worked his world ranking up to No. 839. Then he decided to go to Washington, to lobby for himself with a serve they called "Big Bertha" back at the University of Georgia. He nearly devastated the town with 144 aces, won five straight decisive-set tiebreakers, and shook up Andy Roddick, though losing the final. Nobody had done anything like that before.

Why, it was just like the good not so old days at Georgia, where he led the Bulldogs to the recent NCAA team title and was an All-American four years. "It was more nerve-racking than pro tennis because you just didn't want to let your teammates down," he said.

"How 'bout that Dawg!" is the campus cry, saluting him and his collegiate deeds.

His unexpected pro deeds convinced the Open management to let him in through the back door: as a wild card - gone wild.

From peachy little Athens, Ga., to the Big Apple, Isner finds himself bathing in the surrealism of merely his fourth big league tourney. Winner of seven of 10 matches, up to a ranking of No. 184, Isner suddenly is saddled with the responsibility of saving the US Championship from a persistent Swiss guy named Federer.

That's a third-rounder tomorrow, which he will probably not win against Roger Federer, a man he calls "the only player I like to watch on TV." His Saturday afternoon viewing will be very wide-screen, extremely up close and personal. But Federer, who cannot win a fourth successive US title unless he disciplines Isner (and four others), may feel like he's at the wrong end of a shooting gallery when this Dawg delivers. Admiring, even awed, locker room chatter has cited the Isner serve. His hummer earned praise from the victims, No. 26 Jarko Nieminen (34 aces) and No. 146 Rik de Voest (14 aces). But, they said, the bounding, spinning second ball was even tougher.

How 'bout that Dawg!

Federer will hear plenty of hostile barking from Isnerites in the stands, a kennel full of them, as he tries to duck the rookie's bite.

Looking like a guy at a fraternity party (green madras Bermudas, polo shirt, baseball cap labeled "G - National Champs"), Isner is as happy as a keg-tapper.

"I was raw and skinny when I went to college," he said, "but Coach [Manny] Diaz saw something in me. I put on 40 pounds [to 235] and grew a couple of inches. I had to decide between basketball and tennis in the eighth grade, and I guess I made the right choice. I was always big. A 10-pound baby. My poor mom."

Clearly the loftiest-ever American at the upper level, Isner doesn't quite measure up to the Leaning Tower of Zagreb, 6-10 Ivo Karlovic. "They measured us at Cincinnati and Ivo was just a fraction over me."

The astute Hall of Famer Pancho Segura, watching Isner beat de Voest, said, "I love this kid. Not just the serve. He can move and has good touch and instincts."

Curiously, Isner didn't even win the NCAA singles. That was lost to 5-7 Somdev Devarmen of Virginia. "Really, the team title meant more to me," he said.

"Federer is going to see me at the net a lot. No way I could beat him from the baseline. I'm not saying I'm going to win. But I'm going to believe. I've been there with him before." He smiled. "Yeah, I've had dreams about playing Federer on Arthur Ashe. I can't remember who won. But this chance to really play against him there . . . yeah, it's [you guessed it] definitely surreal."

Woof, woof. How 'bout that Dawg day afternoon!

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