When Vitas Gerulaitis beat Jimmy Connors at the year-end tour championships in 1979, he famously said: “And let that be a lesson to you all... nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row!”
Prior to that, Connors had been his fellow American’s bogey player. It is unlikely John Isner’s losing record to Andy Murray will ever get to that extent, but his record is played eight, lost eight, going into their second-round match at Wimbledon this evening.
But 6ft 10in Isner is not alone among the game’s tall men when it comes to facing the Briton. When Ivo Karlovic, an inch taller, retired from professional tennis last year, he did so having lost all seven of his matches against the Scot.
Another more recent retiree, Kevin Anderson (6ft 8in), fared marginally better, with a 6-2 losing margin, while the tallest man on tour, Reilly Opelka (6ft 11in) has played Murray once — earlier this year — and lost.
A great thinker of the game, Murray was at a loss, however, to explain quite why he has an ability to make the giants of the game feel small on court. He said simply: “For whatever reason, I’ve always played well against them. The match-ups have been good for me.”
Andy Murray | Wimbledon 2022
For Opelka and his fellow big men, it has also led to some head-scratching.
Speaking at Wimbledon’s Aorangi Park practice courts, Opelka said: “I think if you were to dissect his head-to-head form against most players outside the very top players, I think you’ll find he’s got a pretty good record, but there’s clearly something there against the big guys.
“The thing is, he’s a great returner of the ball. He always seems to find a way to get the ball back in, and that reduces the advantage of the serve.”
A relative minnow in comparison to Opelka and Co, Michael Stich was among the taller players in tennis’s top order, at 6ft 4in, when he won Wimbledon in 1991.
Explaining the reason behind Murray’s success, the German said: “He’s a good returner, obviously, and these guys aren’t so consistent from the baseline.
“The tall guys can be good at the baseline, but it’s not the main part of their game, so once he gets the ball back in play, that’s something Andy can use to his advantage because of his stability at the back of the court. That’s one of the main reasons why he has a good record against those guys.
“The other aspect is frustration. The big server of our time was Goran Ivanisevic and I felt the more returns you could get back, the more frustrating, because they’re used to getting a lot of free points on their serve.
“And against the really big guys, sometimes the quality of the return is not that important, it’s often just about getting it over the net to get into the rally. The more rallies you get into, the more options you have, the more mistakes you can force. And these guys aren’t always the smoothest movers in rallies.”
An off-shoot of such a course of action, argues Stich, is that the tall players then get caught into the trap of playing to Murray’s game-plan instead.
“They’re not willing to break Andy’s rhythm,” he said. “That’s what you have to do against a guy like Andy, not play his game. [It’s the] same with Nadal. You have to alter your game. Obviously, you can only alter your game to a certain point while not losing your strength.”
Stich’s nemesis was Andre Agassi, another great returner, and he never beat him in six encounters. That losing record got in his head, a thought he found hard to shake off, something Isner will undoubtedly have on Centre Court.
“It’s just there are some players where your game doesn’t seem to fit,” he said.
Opelka, in contrast, argues he has no issue with a losing streak, be it against Murray or any other player. “If I find I have a bad record against a player, I don’t mind that,” he said. “It almost allows me to throw even more at it. So, I don’t know if he’s got in other players’ heads.”
Isner will be able to provide that big answer today.