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Isner faces tough challenge with Djokovic in quarters

Big John Isner overcame one stumbling block for American tennis players on Thursday. He can take a giant step toward toppling another Friday at the Western & Southern Open.

Isner — one of the game’s biggest servers in both power and height at 6-foot-10 — will restore the U.S. men’s presence in the ATP top 20 rankings next week. He dropped two spots this week to No. 22. That left no one from the U.S. among the top 20 for the first time since the ATP rankings were introduced in August of 1973.

The next challenge? Overcoming the American men’s barrier of winning the Western & Southern Open. Andy Roddick was the last to do it in 2006.

Isner, the last American standing in the men’s draw, faces world No. 1 and four-time W&S finalist Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals this afternoon. Unseeded Isner beat a less-than-100 percent Milos Raonic (neck) of Canada 7-6 (5), 6-4 in Thursday’s sold-out third round at the Lindner Family Tennis Center. Top-seeded Djokovic needed just 50 minutes to dispatch qualifier David Goffin of Germany 6-2, 6-0.

A win certainly boosts Isner’s next ATP ranking. It wouldn’t hurt the American’s standing in the tennis world, either.

Fourteen different countries have players ranked ahead of Isner at No. 22. That includes Canada which has Raonic at No. 10. Five countries — France and Spain with three each and Serbia, Switzerland and Italy with two each — have multiple players ranked in the top 20. After Isner, the next American is No. 28 Sam Querrey then Jack Sock at No. 87.

In contrast, the U.S. women have two players ranked among the top 20 (and three among the top 25) including world No. 1 Serena Williams.

Isner’s take on getting the U.S. back in the top 20?

“I don’t care at all, actually, about that. I don’t take it personally,” said Isner, 28, who didn’t decide to pursue a pro tennis career until he was 21. “I never felt like I was a guy who was going to carry American tennis at all. The fact that I even made it to the top ranked American is a huge surprise for me, and I feel very proud that I can say that.”

Isner is 1-3 overall against Djokovic. Isner lost 7-6(5), 6-2, 7-5 in a Davis Cup world group qualifier in April. Isner’s lone win — a 7-6(7), 3-6, 7-6(5) victory — came at the Indian Wells semifinals in 2012.

Also Thursday, No. 2 Andy Murray, No. 5 Roger Federer, No. 7 Juan Martin Del Potro and qualifier Dmitry Tursunov — who upset No. 3 David Ferrer in straight sets — also advanced.

On the women’s side, No. 2 Victoria Azarenka, No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska, No. 5 Na Li, No. 12 Roberta Vinci and No. 14 Jelena Jankovic were among those advancing in early action. Jankovic outlasted fan favorite Sloane Stephens 3-6, 7-5, 7-5 in their first-ever meeting.

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