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By Tucker Verdi
After John Isner finished up his college career playing at the University of Georgia and turned pro, he made a move to Tampa, Florida, spending three months living on the couch of another American tennis player, James Blake.
Eleven years into a now-top-10 career, Isner picked up his biggest title to date at the 2018 Miami Open. Who handed him the trophy?
None other than new Miami Open tournament director James Blake.
“I never could have imagined I would be on a stage like this receiving a trophy from [Blake],” Isner said addressing the crowd. “The atmosphere was electric; it was unbelievable. You can’t replicate moments like this. I’m towards the latter part of my career, and this is the best moment.”
It has been a long eleven years to this moment for Isner, the peaks of a World No. 9 ranking, being the American No. 1 for five years, and 12 ATP World Tour titles, and the valleys of disappointing performances on the biggest stages and the pains that come with being almost 7 feet tall – before taking into account his career choice as a professional athlete.
But two highpoints have no doubt made being 32 feel like a golden year for the big man. In December, he got married. And on Sunday, he fired 18 aces en route to a 6-7(4), 6-4, 6-4 victory over Alexander Zverev to win his first Miami Open and first Masters 1000 singles title after three finals losses before.
The match was every bit of what was expected from the two strong hitters. After a match last year between the two here in which all three sets were decided by tiebreaks, tennis fans could expect a thrilling final, and that’s just what they got.
A day after a women’s final that featured 12 breaks of serve, the men’s final was the polar opposite. Despite Isner threatening Zverev’s serve early on, both players held serve through the first set. A back and forth tiebreak ended in Zverev’s favor as the German took the first set.
But Isner, who had looked exhausted and frustrated much of the first set, said after the match that he found himself rejuvenated heading into the second.
“I was the most tired the whole match, in the first set. At the beginning of the second set, I caught a second wind, and I started feeling so much better. I don’t know what happened.
“Obviously adrenaline helps,” he quipped, a nod to playing for such an important title to his career.
In the second set, at 4-all, Isner would finally be the one to pounce. On what was his sixth break point of the match, Isner converted to go up 5-4 and serve for the set. Despite 4 easy service games in the set, Zverev made a last push to break back. But the American dispatched of both of Zverev’s break points, and electrified the crowd after saving the second one, pointing to each section to a roaring ovation.
It took Isner 2 set points, but he clinched the second and forced a deciding set for the title.
“I was able to get ahead 5-4 in the second set and barely held to take it to a third,” a beaming Isner explained. “If you start to gain a little confidence, next thing you know, things start to roll your way. I kept pushing, and just kept with the plan.”
The third would be a mirror image set of the second, with the players on serve at 4-all without any breaks of serve. Though Isner had ample break chances up to that point in the set, he struggled to close them out. But, again, Isner kept with the plan.
He was 1-for-11 when he got his 12th break chance. He didn’t struggle this time, converting and setting himself up to serve for the biggest championship of his career.
In John Isner fashion, he closed out the Miami Open in Key Biscayne with three straight 130+ MPH aces to win it all. The sense of relief that overcame his face was a reflection of his journey since that stay on James Blake’s couch.
“I was just ready for this moment,” Isner said, explaining, “I’ve been [in a Masters 1000 final] three other times and lost.”
His excitement at finally getting over that hump was evident in the way he bounded around the court, leaping his 6’10” frame into the air in celebration.
This is a man who knows the struggles of playing the game, and is finally getting a chance to bask in its glory. Isner knows when he is playing at the top of his craft, he can take down any opponent. But he is also aware that, if at any moment his play slips, he can fall to anyone.
“That’s how tennis goes.”
He’s leaving Key Biscayne a Miami Open champion, a Masters 1000 title finally under his belt. Tennis is going pretty well for the 32-year-old American at the moment.