John Isner looked dead after the first set of his Miami Open final against Alexander Zverev.
In fact, after the 32-year-old American pulled off a 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4 victory to notch the biggest title of his career, he said that was the worst he felt all day.
“It’s crazy. I was the most tired the whole match in the first set. At the end of the first, beginning of the second, I caught a second wind. I started feeling so much better. I don’t know what happened. But I guess adrenaline helps,” Isner said during a post-match interview with ESPN. “I was just ready for his moment. I’ve been here three other times and I’ve lost, on this stage. I was just ready for it. … “I won my first match in 3 sets, and that’s how tennis goes. You start to gain a little confidence and the next thing you know things start to roll your way. I just kept pushing.”
One 2018 match win coming in
It’s Isner’s 13th career title – and by far his biggest. Of those, 11 have been won in the U.S. – two Auckland titles are the only exception. But all the others have been lower-level ones, 250s.
Isner is the oldest-ever first-time Masters 1000 champion, the first American to win the Miami Open since Andy Roddick in 2010.
Of the American’s 12 previous runner-up finishes, 11 have been in the U.S.
But Isner has had his chances at the Masters 1000 level before.
He had made three previous finals: the Paris Indoors in 2016, Cincinnati in 2013 and Indian Wells in 2012. All were close, but the American just couldn’t close the deal.
Isner credits conversations with David Macpherson – who also coached the Bryan brothers to their doubles title Saturday – with a change of mindset.
“I think it was maybe Wednesday before, you know, when the tournament had just started, we spoke – we had dinner and we hashed out, or I especially hashed out what’s been holding me back, and it’s not more reps on the court. I mean, I’m doing that. It’s not more time in the gym. I have been doing that. It was just mental things and myself being tight and tentative on the court holding me back. That’s the reason why I was losing close matches,” Isner said.
“We cleared that hurdle this week. So I went into every match, you know, super-fresh mentally and loose. We kept, after each match I won, we would have another dinner, have another dinner, have another dinner, and we kept hammering that point, just be loose, and I will be a force if I can play freely, and I was able to do that.”
No pre-Miami momentum
Coming in, Isner had posted just one match win in six tournaments, plus a win in a fifth-set tiebreak against Dusan Lajovic and Serbia in Davis Cup.
But on a weekend American tennis showed its best, he caught the wave with the help of improved returning, and solid play from the baseline.
And he did it against a player 12 years younger, one who first beat him when he was just a 15-year-old kid on the practice courts at the Saddlebrook resort in Florida.
Zverev, who destroyed one racket in the process, had nothing but gracious words for the man who defeated him.
“I want to thank you for kind of teaching me how to play the game, and practicing with me from such a young age,” he said during the trophy ceremony. “Even though you don’t believe it now, but you’re a big part of what I do on the court.”
Isner was touched.
“I’m 12 years older than you, you’re 20 years old, you’re No. 4 in the world, you have the brightest future ahead, you have the greatest team with you, you do everything the right way,” Isner said. “I’ve been on tour with you the last four years, I see the work you put in. Just keep pushing along and you’re going to be at the very, very top one day.”
With the victory, Isner jumps back into the top 10 in the rankings for the first time since May, 2014. He had been as low as No. 27 in Oct. 2016.
“For me to, having come in here having won one match and to leave this tournament back to top 10 in the world – I think I got there in 2012 and I got back there in 2014, and now I have matched my high ranking in 2018, so I have done it three times. It’s up to me now to keep pushing forward,” Isner said during his press conference.
“This is a big hurdle for me, mentally more than anything, to get over the hump in a tournament like this. I will have many more tournaments like this and see if I can maybe give myself another opportunity.”
Too many missed balls
Zverev rued all the errors he made, errors that he said he hadn’t made all week. But he didn’t have a smooth path to the final. The 20-year-old needed a third-set tiebreak to beat Daniil Medvedev in his first match, and he got past No. 28 seed David Ferrer 6-4 in the third set in the third round.
“I think I missed more shots today than I did the whole tournament. Yeah, I played bad from the baseline. But, you know, it’s not easy against John, because you always feel the pressure that if you get broken you’re not going to win the set. That’s maybe a factor,” he said.
Both now head to Davis Cup next weekend, which is not a fun turnaround.
Zverev must travel to Europe, and change surfaces. Germany will face a powerhouse Spanish team that includes Rafael Nadal on red clay in Valencia.
Isner, whose American team will be equally loaded against an undermanned Belgian squad missing David Goffin, only has to travel to Nashville.
(All screenshots from TennisTV)