If you’re wondering how it feels to stand across the court from John Isner, 2018 Wimbledon singles semifinalist, waiting for the 6-foot-10 behemoth to unleash a 130 mph serve, Stephen Mantzouris can tell you.
Mantzouris was the No. 1 singles player for the Terry Sanford tennis team in 2001. His Fayetteville family is city tennis royalty, as the city tennis complex at Milton E. Mazarick Park is named in memory of his grandfather, a huge tennis enthusiast.
Mantzouris and Isner crossed paths on the tennis court during the 2001 season, when Terry Sanford finally got by perennial power Raleigh Broughton in the 4-A dual team state playoffs and tackled Greensboro Page and Isner in the state finals.
Dual team tennis is exactly what it sounds like. Just as in a normal high school regular season match, player Nos. 1 through 6 in singles and 1 through 3 in doubles are paired head to head in individual matches. The team that wins the most matches wins the match.
Terry Sanford lost the final duel with Page 6-3, with Mantzouris bowing to Isner in their singles battle 6-4, 7-5.
Mantzouris, who now lives and works in Raleigh as a family nurse practitioner after a brief stint in the U.S. Navy, said he faced Isner when the latter was only a sophomore in high school and yet to reach his full height of 6-10.
“He was about 6-7 or 6-8, but his serve was huge,’’ said Mantzouris, who said he was about 5-7 at the time.
Mantzouris said Isner’s serve alone took him to another level well above the high school players of his era.
“You’ve got a 15-year-old kid with a kick serve that goes threefourths of the way up the fence,’’ Mantzouris said. “That’s what I remember the most.’’
Mantzouris said that left him with a dilemma on how to attack such a lethal weapon. “Do I step back when he serves it at 130 miles per hour so I can have more time, or do I step forward because if I go all the way back he’s kicking it over my head and I can’t even return it?”
Mantzouris chose to hug the baseline and block everything to get it in play. His hope was to avoid being aced and try and engage Isner in rallies, where Mantzouris was certain he had a definite edge.
“I knew if I got in a rally we were getting close to even,’’ Mantzouris said. “His backhand was not as good as my backhand. He’s worked on his backhand a lot, and that’s made him the player he is, to strengthen his weakness so it’s less of a weakness and people can’t attack him as much.’’
Now, Mantzouris said Isner is a 30-something adult who has had years of training at his considerable size and also has better balance and core strength, all reasons why he’s a world top-10 ranked singles player.
The days of American men leading the pack in the ranks of world tennis are long gone, and Mantzouris isn’t sure why the sport is suffering a swoon here.
“I don’t know if we don’t put enough money into juniors compared to other countries,’’ he said. “I know it’s not lack of opportunities. We are a very wealthy nation compared to a lot of other ones.’’
One problem could be the lack of variety for Americans in the surfaces they play. “We pretty much play on hard courts all the time,’’ he said. “We don’t play on grass a lot or red clay. We play on green clay. Americans do best on hard courts.’’
While Mantzouris and his Terry Sanford teammates lost their match against Page and Isner back in 2001, the 2001 season wasn’t a total disappointment for him. He teamed with fellow Terry Sanford player Bryant Tran to win the state 4-A doubles championship that season.
“We’ll always be on that board at Terry Sanford,’’ Mantzouris said, referring to a large blue wooden board affixed to the fence at the tennis courts at Terry Sanford. It was created by longtime Bulldog tennis coach Gil Bowman, member of the Fayetteville Sports Club and North Carolina High School Athletic Association Halls of Fame. The board lists past Bulldog state champions.
After Mantzouris left Fayetteville and entered the military his interest in tennis waned, but he found another channel for his sporting pursuits: mixed martial arts.
While serving in the Navy in San Diego he was training at a local gym and was introduced to the sport. When friends who were involved in the Ultimate Fighting Championships found he was a nurse, he became involved in that sport doing corner work for some of the UFC competitors.
But he admits he does miss his tennis days at Terry Sanford, especially his teammates and the camaraderie they shared.
“You get in that team aspect and it’s fun to have that atmosphere,’’ he said.