Took some time, but Miami Open finalist John Isner has finally found a groove


KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — The stadium at Crandon Park was overflowing for Friday’s Miami Open semifinal, as Juan Martin del Potro squared off against John Isner. A large segment of the passionate, vocal fans basking in the South Florida sunshine were wearing baby blue and white — the colors of del Potro’s homeland, Argentina.

That familiar chant, “Ole, Ole, Ole, Delpo, Delpo” rang continuously through the afternoon. But those fans didn’t have a lot to cheer about when all was said and done, as del Potro’s work day was a short, unsuccessful one, losing 6-1, 7-6 (2). Isner was neither annoyed nor intimidated by their partisanship. He was inspired.

There was a moment at 3-2 in the second set when del Potro threatened to get back in the match with a break of serve. The crowd began to sing again. But Isner stepped up to the service line and cracked an ace. Ole this!

In the second-set tiebreaker, Isner was again obliged to wait out the fans as he prepared to serve at 4-2. When things settled, he walloped a serve so hard it almost spun the racket out of del Potro’s hand. Isner followed that with a clean ace. Delpo that!

Two points later, it was over. Isner barreled into the final against — arguably — the best player in the world right now in del Potro. Now Isner will playing for the biggest title of his career Sunday against No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev.

“The atmosphere was amazing,” Isner told the crowd in his on-court interview. “You Argentine fans are awesome. I appreciate it, even though you were cheering for Juan Martin. It was very fun to play.”

Not so fun for del Potro. The 6-foot-6 Argentine appeared leg-weary and never was able to do what he does best: impose himself to the full measure of his XL size. Isner acknowledged that, volunteering that del Potro was “sort of running on fumes.”

“As always, I have been feeling tight in all my body for the last couple of weeks, but when I get into the court, I love to play tennis,” del Potro said afterward. “I got too much love from the fans, and maybe that pains go away during the match. But today John plays better. I don’t have any skills for that. He was better than me, and he deserved to win.”

Isner found the path to this final through a dark wood, toting an anemic 2-6 record in 2018. He put in four or five days of hard work in Los Angeles before Indian Wells, hoping for a turnaround. In his first match in the desert, Isner reached match point against Gael Monfils but couldn’t close it. Pretty disappointing result, but Isner stuck around, and with partner Jack Sock won the doubles title.

“Doing well in doubles can help your singles,” Isner said. “In Indian Wells, it kept me in match mode. I got real live reps and chances to return in pressure situations.”

Isner, 32, just needed a break, something to make everything fall into place. He got it from the most unlikely of sources, an injury in his first-round match against Jiri Vesely. It was an ugly first set, but Isner won it in a tiebreaker. In the second set, Isner left the court on a medical timeout. Upon his return, he realized, “The only way I was going to win this match was if I free up and just hit the ball. If I continued to play tight and tense, it would bother my leg.”

Isner went on to win the match. “Ever since then, it’s been easier,” he said Friday.

Isner’s final obstacle is Zverev, a player as tall as del Potro but still four inches shorter than Isner. Zverev should be slightly fresher than Isner, if anything because he’s only 20 years old. He has a 3-0 edge on Isner, but their past two matches have been three-setters, including last year’s three-tiebreaker affair in the fourth round of this tournament.

“He’s the best young player we have,” Isner said of Zverev.

Zverev dispatched baseliner Pablo Carreno Busta 7-6 (4), 6-2 on Friday night in the other semifinal. The young German smoked 10 aces past Carreno Busta and won 88 percent of his first-serve points. Formidable as that is, Isner might be happy taking his chances against a fellow bombardier instead of being forced into a grueling all-court battle with the consistent Spanish grinder.

Isner knows the precise niche he occupies in the ATP food chain. “If I’m doing the right things, it doesn’t matter who I’m playing, I’m going to be tough to beat,” he said. “On the flip side of that, if I’m not too confident or doing the right things out there, I can be beaten by anybody.”

Isner has been doing the right things at this tournament and will have to return well to compensate for his disadvantage in the movement department.

“Things are just clicking for me,” he said, “And if I’m returning well, that should bode well for me given how I serve. I’m happy it’s all coming together right now.”

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