WESLEY CHAPEL — Last week, a group of teenagers attending the summer tennis camp at Saddlebrook Resort got autographs and posed for pictures with their idol, John Isner, who trains at the complex.
Thursday the same kids gathered at the clubhouse restaurant to watch on television as Isner, 25, played the last hour and a half of a marathon match that started on Tuesday and was delayed by darkness twice.
Over Wimbledon-style dishes of strawberries and cream, the kids marveled at Isner's 143-mph serve, his strength and his endurance. After his 70-68 fifth-set win over Nicolas Mahut, they jumped up and down, hugged and chanted "USA!" before picking up their own rackets and heading out to same courts that Isner, the second-highest ranked American, has practiced on since 2007.
Briana Cohen, a 15-year-old from Baltimore, grabbed her cell phone and called home.
"Oh, my God, it was so cool!" Cohen said.
Cohen, like many others watching the history-making match that lasted 11 hours and five minutes, wanted to know Isner's secret.
The kids turned to Isner's trainer, Jason Riley, director of sports performance at Saddlebrook, who joined them at the Tropics restaurant inside the resort.
Riley said he has been working with Isner for more than two years and Isner's hard work does not end on the tennis courts. He spends up to three and a half hours a day focusing on strength training and endurance.
Another important aspect of his training is his diet. Riley offers nutritional counseling with a holistic approach. Isner eats plenty of fish, chicken, whole wheat pasta and brown rice. Looking around the restaurant at the bowls of dessert, Riley was quick to say strawberries were okay, but forget the cream.
When he first got to Saddlebrook, Isner had issues with cramping, Riley said. Riley introduced Isner to coconut water, which, like sports drinks, mimics electrolytes, but is a natural alternative.
Riley said he's certain Isner kept hydrated throughout the marathon match by drinking both water and the coconut concoction, and he reminded Isner in an e-mail Wednesday night to keep it up.
Even with Isner's commitment to exercise and a strict diet, his trainers and the employees at Saddlebrook were still surprised he was able to play so well for such a long period of time.
"This is absolutely unprecedented athleticism," said Howard Moore, program director at Saddlebrook. "There is just no other way to describe it."
Here at Saddlebrook, Isner, who is ranked 19th in the world, is known as both hardworking and humble. The Greensboro, N.C., native and former University of Georgia standout is hard to miss. He is 6-feet-9-inches tall.
He likes to joke around with other professional athletes who also train at Saddlebrook.
Tim Smyczek, Isner's roommate and also a professional tennis player, said Isner likes to play tricks on people. While at the University of Georgia, Isner once dipped his trainer's toothbrush in hot pepper sauce.
"He loves to joke around and is always laughing," Smyczek said in a phone interview from Chicago. "I can't say what he's done, I might get myself in trouble, but let's just say, he's a prankster."
Smyczek, who rents a bedroom in Isner's Seven Oaks home in Wesley Chapel, said they often practice together and have played against each other just for fun.
"I've beaten him before, but he might've been taking it easy on me," Smyczek chuckled. "Returning his serve is a little bit difficult."
Isner's serve is what has Andrew Schwartz excited. Andrew, who is from New York City, is 15 years old and already 6-feet-3-inches tall.
Andrew got to meet Isner last Wednesday, after the tennis pro finished practice.
"He looked like he was working really hard," Andrew said. "I didn't know he'd be playing this fantastic match. It was neat watching history being made."
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or firstname.lastname@example.org.