Few fans follow the Carolina Panthers more passionately than America’s best male tennis player.
John Isner, who grew up in Greensboro, once lost a very close match to Roger Federer in London in the 2012 Olympics. I was covering the match and saw Isner a few minutes later. Before I could ask him a question, he asked me this one: “What’s the deal with Jeff Otah?”
That Isner would be thinking about Otah – an oft-injured, first-round bust for the Panthers who would be cut a few hours later – at that exact moment speaks to his deep well of knowledge about the team.
Isner is also the 11th-ranked tennis player in the world. The year’s first Grand Slam, the Australian Open, starts on Jan. 18 in Melbourne and Isner will be playing. I visited with Isner at one of the Panthers’ games against Atlanta this season, then caught up with him by phone just before he headed toward the other side of the world. I asked him five questions about the Panthers.
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Q. You follow the Panthers religiously on Twitter and on CharlotteObserver.com as well as on other media outlets. You watch every Panthers game wherever you are. You are an optimistic guy. But could you ever have predicted 15-1?
A. I don’t care how talented a team you have, you can’t ever predict 15-1. It’s been crazy. They got off to a good start and then when they won those three home games in a row vs. Indy, Philly and Green Bay, that made them 8-0, and at that point I started to realize this team was pretty special.
They handled their business the next week in Tennessee and then you start to realize this team is elite – so well-coached, very disciplined and lots of talent on both sides of the ball. Just seem to be doing everything right. So at that point for me I realized that this team was pretty special and something like 15-1 was possible.
Q. What sort of challenge will watching Carolina’s first playoff game in Australia present for you?
A. It’s an interesting predicament. Carolina got the Sunday 1:05 p.m. playoff game, and in Australia that will be very early Monday morning (5 a.m. in Australia, where Isner will be).
So it’s a bit of an issue, especially since my first match could be on that same Monday – although if I had my druthers, it would be on Tuesday. A Saturday night playoff game would have been better for me, but that’s not to be.
But I’m going to be watching it, that’s for sure. I’ll make sure I get to bed extra early so I get enough sleep, especially if I play that day.
There’s no way I could sleep through it. I’m serious. My body naturally wakes itself up for Panthers games. If I’m in Europe and the Panthers game is starting at 3 a.m., I just wake up right before kickoff anyway. I just care so much that my body knows when to get up.
Q. You have been to more than 20 Panthers games in person, including this year’s lone loss at Atlanta when you watched from the sideline for a while. I know you were close with Steve Smith. Now that he is in Baltimore, what other connections do you have with the team?
A. I know a handful of guys. I know all the Georgia guys (Isner also went to school at the University of Georgia), like Charles (Johnson), Thomas (Davis) and (Fernando) Velasco.
I also know Dwan Edwards and have gotten to know Brenton Bersin a little bit. And Jordan Gross has become a pretty good friend. He obviously isn’t playing anymore but he’s still very affiliated with the team. So I feel like I have a pretty good connection with the team, which is so cool and very humbling to me.
Q. Your thoughts on the Panthers’ chances to win the Super Bowl?
A. I think it’s better than anyone else’s chances. Outside the Charlotte area, this team still seems to have some doubters. Not me.
I don’t think Carolina cares who they play in the next round, either. The Panthers match up well with every team, simply because they are so good. Whether it’s Seattle or the winner of the Green Bay-Washington game, I don’t think it matters to the Panthers much. They are coached very well. Cam Newton is the MVP of the league. I give them a very, very good shot.
Q. Steph Curry already sounds like he would go to the Super Bowl if Carolina gets there. Have you looked at your schedule and whether you would be able to attend if Carolina makes it to the Super Bowl on Feb. 7?
A. I don’t even want to think about it. I’ll cross that bridge when it comes. If it comes to that, though, I will be back in the States at that point. So it’s something I could definitely make happen.