By Tucker Verdi
On a screen in the corner behind and across from John Isner was the number "139."
Isner has led a career that is defined by numbers that seem out of place. He stands at 6 feet, 10 inches – a good 4 inches taller than some of the tallest players on tour. He began his professional career at 22, when most begin in their mid-to-late teens. And, of course, his most distinguishable number: an 11 hour and 5 minute match in the first round of Wimbledon in 2010 that took 3 days to complete and in which he served 113 aces.
The 139 on the screen represented another one of those recognizable aces from the big man.
“I've played a lot of matches, a lot of big matches where I wasn't able to free up [my serve],” Isner explained on court following the win. “It's just a mentality, you have to tell yourself to go for it, there's really no other way to play the point, especially for me because I'm not built-- I can't run side to side.”
It was that 139 MPH ace that gave him a 5-2 lead in the second set tiebreak against Juan Martín del Potro. In a match as important as the Miami Open semifinal, Isner leaned heavily on that strong serve to overpower the visibly exhausted Argentinian, and ultimately won 6-1, 7-6(2). He becomes the first American in a Miami Open final since Andy Roddick won the title in 2010.
To send the second set to a tiebreak, the 32-year-old former University of Georgia tennis star hit a pair of 132 MPH aces that won him the game to level at 6-all. A “Go Dawgs!” shout from the stands precipitated a 138 MPH ace, which was followed by a 136 MPH serve that gave Isner a 3-0 lead in the tiebreak. Next, he fired a 137 MPH ace to go up 4-2.
And then came the 139 MPH serve, his fastest in the match, after over 80 minutes of play under the hot Miami sun. If you're keeping track, that’s 132, 132, 138, 136, 137, and 139.
His serve wasn’t the only hit blowing up the radar gun. He also hit a 117 MPH so-called “fearhand” that left del Potro with no option but to watch it fly by.
“Oh man,” Isner remarked after being told of his forehand speed, “I haven't hit a forehand that hard in quite some time. And I'm doing it now at the ripe old age of 32, so it feels pretty good.”
It was his second consecutive win against the 2009 US Open champion, who was playing in his 25th match of the year compared to Isner, who was playing in only his 13th. He understood that, while the fifth-seed was playing some of the best tennis in the world right now, his tank was a bit empty after so much time on court. After the win, a drained del Potro embraced Isner and practically crumbled in his arms.
“He's understandably so tired, he's played so many matches and I was a little bit fortunate to get a del Potro who's very low on fuel.”
While he moves forward into his fourth career Masters 1000 final, they haven’t gone well for him in the past. He failed to win any of the previous finals, losing to three of the Big Four in Roger Feder, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Murray.
But it’s nonetheless an improvement on a rather sour start to the year, as the North Carolina native was 2-6 coming into Miami. Asked if he anticipated this kind of run to turn his year around, Isner was blunt.
“No,” Isner said with a grin and a round of laughter from the crowd. “It's hard to say,” he continued, “once I won my first match, of course, I was pretty relieved. Then I played well again in my second match. I've just continued to keep playing better. I think today was even my best match.
“Look, I’m playing the best tennis I’ve played in a very, very long time, and I’m so happy to be doing it here.”
Isner will need his best tennis if he wants to claim his first Miami Open and Masters 1000 title, because neither Alexander Zverev nor Pablo Carreño Busta will likely hand it to him easily. Isner was asked if he’s thinking about their matchup tonight.
“I don’t really think anything about it. I’ll kick my feet up, watch some basketball tomorrow.”
The former World No. 9, who will be back in the top 10 on Monday and could match his career-high ranking with a victory on Sunday, should also remember to ice his right shoulder and elbow, especially if he hopes to see that "139" flash on the screen again.