“It’s been a huge part of my life. It’s tough to say goodbye. It’s not easy,” the 38-year-old American said. “But eventually, this day would come. It’s hard to prepare for the emotions of it.”
As career-ending days go, it would be hard to come up with a more appropriate way for Isner to bow out than a pair of final-set tiebreakers — one in singles, one in doubles — and, while he would have preferred a victory or two, of course, he did appreciate the raucous crowd support and standing ovations he was showered with at each defeat.
The 6-foot-10 (2.08-meter) Isner announced the week before play began at Flushing Meadows that this Grand Slam tournament would mark his farewell, and the guy who long was his country’s best male player bowed out in the second round of the singles bracket with a 3-6, 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-4, 7-6 (10-7) loss to another American wild-card entry, Michael Mmoh, at the Grandstand.
A few hours later, Isner headed into full-fledged retirement by dropping a doubles match alongside Jack Sock, another American who has said the U.S. Open will be his last tournament. They were beaten by Robert Galloway and Albano Olivetti 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (10-3) at Court 12.
“There’s, of course, a lot of disappointment with the result of my singles match today, but at the same time a lot of gratitude, as well, just to have one last time playing in an atmosphere like that. It was very cool. As I said on the court, that’s why I work so hard,” Isner said. “Hard to explain how bad my body feels — I’m not (about) talking right now, because it does, but just in general, lately. So everything I do to get it ready to play, there’s a lot that goes into it. I wanted one more U.S. Open and was able to get that.”
When Isner put a volley into the net off a dipping passing shot by Mmoh, the two opponents hugged.
Then Isner — who was one point from winning at 5-4 in the fifth set but netted a backhand return — sat on his sideline chair and covered his face with a white towel.
“In the moment, in that tiebreaker, you’re not really thinking about the fact that it’s his last match. Maybe before you start the match you are, but not in that tiebreaker and not when you’re down match point,” said Mmoh, a 25-year-old who only once before had won a match after dropping the initial two sets.
“When I won the match, I had a lot of positive emotion and I was really, really happy. But then, one second later, I felt bad. I genuinely did,” said Mmoh, who will play 21-year-old Jack Draper of Britain next. “When I saw him get emotional in that interview, I genuinely felt for him. So it was tricky. It was almost like bittersweet. Obviously, at the end of the day, we’re all competitors and we come here for one reason, and so I’m happy to get the ‘W.’”
Women advancing included Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova, Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka, 2017 U.S. Open runner-up Madison Keys, three-time major semifinalist Elina Svitolina and No. 13 seed Daria Kasatkina.
No. 3 seed Jessica Pegula, the highest-ranked American woman, took control early and beat Patricia Maria Tig 6-3, 6-1 in 72 minutes in Arthur Ashe Stadium at night, after defending men’s champion Carlos Alcaraz reached the third round by overpowering Lloyd Harris 6-3, 6-1, 7-6 (4) in a match that some viewers in New York, Los Angeles and several other cities couldn’t watch on ESPN2 when it went dark because of a dispute between Disney and the Charter Spectrum cable system.
“I played a great match,” Alcaraz said, “from the beginning until the last ball.”
In the day’s final match, which ended after 1 a.m., 2021 U.S. Open champion Daniil Medvedev beat Christopher O’Connell 6-2, 6-2, 6-7 (6), 6-2.
In other action, Stan Wawrinka, a 38-year-old owner of three major titles including the 2016 U.S. Open, moved into the third round, while Andy Murray, a 36-year-old owner of three major titles including the 2012 U.S. Open, was eliminated.
Wawrinka beat No. 30 seed Tomás Martín Etcheverry 7-6 (6), 6-7 (7), 6-3, 6-2. Murray was knocked out by No. 19 Grigor Dimitrov 6-3, 6-4, 6-1.
Always known for his tough-to-read and tough-to-reach big serves, Isner smacked 48 aces against Mmoh, raising his ATP-record career total to 14,470. His last serve, fittingly, arrived at 134 mph.
Isner also holds the single-match mark of 113 aces, achieved during his 11-hour, 5-minute victory over Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010 that concluded at 70-68 in the fifth set — the longest contest in the history of tennis.
He’ll long be remembered for that marathon. His career-best showing at a Grand Slam event also came at the All England Club, where he made it to the semifinals in 2018 before a defeat against Kevin Anderson that finished 26-24 in the fifth.
Those two lengthy final sets were a big factor in the sport’s change to tiebreakers in the decisive sets at all Grand Slam tournaments.
After losing the first-to-10 tiebreaker against Mmoh, Isner was asked to describe his emotions for the spectators who chanted his last name.
“Yeah, it’s tough,” Isner said, and sniffled.
Later, offering a summation of his career, he again was hit by the finality of it all.
“I might not win every match, that’s for sure. I might lose a lot of close matches. I might get tight and choke a little bit on the court. That happens. But also I care,” said Isner, who won 16 singles titles and reached a career high of No. 8 in the ATP rankings. “I love this sport, for sure. I want to be remembered as someone who competed pretty hard on the court. I think I did that. But off the court, it’s most important within the locker room to have the respect of my colleagues.”