Miami Open Review John Isner Solid With a Dash of the Spectacular

John Isner

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The Miami Open looked like an ATP 1000 trophy up for grabs and it ended up being just that. Not just any player took the title though- champion John Isner was no ATP 1000 final debutante or a stranger to beating top ten players and his win, while a surprise considering his form going into the event was no real shock to those who know how solid the American can be on his regular days and how he is also capable of being, on his day, pretty spectacular.

John Isner was 2-6 before his Miami Open trophy run. In 2018, he had beaten 84th ranked Dusan Lajovic in the Davis Cup first round and  87th ranked Radu Albot in the first round of Delray Beach (he had lost to Albot in his very last match before to that win when the two played in the round of 16 at the New York Open).

Gael Monfils, Albot, Hyeon Chung, Matthew Ebden, Peter Gojowcyzk, and Ryan Harrison were the six men who beat Isner before Miami and all of them had to fight to do so- four of those matches went the distance, the one five setter Isner lost went to four, at the Australian Open to Ebden, and the one match he did lose in straights, to Harrison, the second set went to a tiebreaker.

Still, in the record books, a loss is a loss, and Isner was piling them up. Then, in Miami, everything came together for the home player. Isner went from that run of struggling form to beating:

Jiri Vesely, ranked 64 and a former top 35 player.

Mikhail Youzhny, ranked 102 but a former top ten player and US Open semifinalist.

Marin Cilic, current world No.3 and reigning Wimbledon and Australian Open finalist.

Hyeon Chung, who has broken into the top 20 on the back of his Miami run and is one of the tour’s hottest NextGenners.

Juan Martin del Potro, fresh off his Indian Wells win, but well burned out  by the time he met Isner.

Sascha Zvevev, holder of two ATP 1000s (Rome, Montreal) and just coming out of a seven month slump.

That’s 3 top ten players, the NextGenFinals champ, a promising and very capable Vesely (remember that Djokovic win in Monte Carlo) and a former top tenner and slam semi-finalist. An ATP 1000 trophy win is an ATP 1000 trophy win in the record books, but there will be no penciled in asterisks made by tennis fans perusing who champs beat on their way to the titles when their eyes scan Isner’s Miami ’18 title run.

Isner always had it in him to take a Masters should the opportunity arise. Isner is a solid player overall, but blessed with that little bit extra, alongside his 2.08 meter frame, to make him stand out from the majority of his rivals.

While Isner is not a spectacular all rounder, (in 39 slams, Isner had been to just one quarter-final, the best of five set format seeming to be where his weaknesses, namely movement and on the backhand and on the return, areas in which many elite player of recent times have excelled, are most exploited, that last  eight showing all the way back in 2011 at the US Open and he has a 61-39 record overall), he has one of the most spectacular shots in the game, that serve, and a pretty good forehand to say the least, and that potent mix of solid base- being able to hold serve, win baseline rallies with his forehand and come to the net to finish points- combined with a sound mind developed after contesting so many tight sets and tiebreaks, and being armed with a spectacular weapon or two has been most effective over his career over the three set format, and at the highest level of that format, too, at the ATP 1000s- Isner has reached four ATP 1000 finals now (Indian Wells ’12, Cincinnati ’13, Paris ’16, Miami ’18), and had made seven semis and three quarters.

There are men with less impressive ATP 1000 resumes with those very titles on their mantle pieces- Robredo, Portas, Pavel, Grosjean- but those men won theirs in a very different era, when the Big Four and all the confidence and intimidation that comes with being part of that group was not a force, while Isner contested for his ATP 1000 titles in the finals versus three of those Big Four members, facing Federer in the IW ’12 final (beating Djokovic on the way), Nadal in the Cincy ’13 final, (again beating Djokovic on his way) and Murray in the Paris ’16 showpiecer, in periods when they were close to their best.

In Miami that opportunity to finally add something a little special to his resume (other than of course the small achievement of winning the game’s longest match, at Wimbledon), an opportunity which was pretty much dead and buried to anyone outside the Big Four from 2009-2016, really did rise again for Isner- Federer was out in his opener as was Djokovic; Murray, Nadal and Wawrinka were missing from the draw; Thiem, who if healthy could have done some damage, was out, too; Cilic is still inconsistent; Nishikori and Raonic are on the come back from injuries; Dimitrov is still enigmatic; and The Next Gen, most of them anyway, are just not ready to step up.

Isner’s final opponent Zverev is the one NextGenner who really has stepped up, winning two ATP 1000s, beating  Djokovic and Federer in the finals. Both times, Zverev managed matches against struggling opponents with great maturity, and at times in the Miami final, Zverev looked like he might once again capitalize from his opponent having an off day. In the final, Isner had chances to take the first set, but ended up losing it 6-7 as his nerves got the better of him.  However, the American leveled the match in the second set 6-4 and then proved the tougher of the two finalists breaking Zverev at 4-4 in the third set for 5-4, the German smashing his racket and the American going on to serve out the match for his biggest career title.

Isner’s Miami trophy run, beating the players he did, and staying mentally tough in the final versus a player he had a 0-3 head to head deficit against, was the little dash of spectacular, title wise, missing from his career. There have been arguably easier runs to ATP 1000 titles, and there have been much tougher ones, but, however difficult the run, being the most spectacular player in every match is not what matters- it is being better when it matters which is decisive, and Isner in Miami was exactly that. In fact, at times Isner was both solid and spectacular. Isner’s solid game and nature- staying calm, focused, positive- was complimented by his game’s spectacular parts working at their full capacity-on the serve, he was not broken once in the final- on a trophy winning run in which Isner trumped the inexperienced, the burned out, the more limited, the past their prime, and in the final, the raw talent and temper of youth.

That raw talent and temper has been developed and tamed enough for Zverev to be ranked as high as 4 in the world and win 2 ATP 1000s, and Isner has had some influence in that taming. Isner talked of how far back he goes with Zverev, all the way to when Zverev was 14 and first arrived at Saddlebrook, Florida, when they would hit together, and Zverev himself paid tribute to the influence Isner has had on his game, influence which may continue into Zverev’s highly touted future.

At the age of 32, Isner might not be around on tour when Zverev starts seriously competing for slams, but when Isner does retire, he’ll have Masters champion mentioned in his ceremony, along with winning the game’s longest five setter, winning 13 titles in all, and counting, and the way things on the tour are going, and the way Isner is so motivated, relaxed, and inspired, there may be plenty more solid words, dashed with some spectacular ones, to be said.

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Christian Deverille

Christian Deverille is a tennis writer with a diploma in Freelance Sports Writing from the London School of Journalism. He loves all things tennis, most of all the Federer and del Potro forehands.

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