Baby Steps for a Big Man: Isner Survives Miami Opener

Isner narrowly survived his Miami opener against Ivan Dodig.

March 23, 2013 — It has been barely a year since John Isner defeated world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of Indian Wells to reach his first career final at a Masters 1000 tournament.  While he could not claim the title there, Isner appeared to have notched a decisive breakthrough in his career that would propel the top-ranked American man forward.

Events since then have questioned this interpretation of that memorable fortnight in the desert, especially over the last few months.  Struggling for form from the US Open onward, Isner absorbed a serious blow when a knee injury forced him to withdraw from the Australian Open.  That injury, not unexpected for a player of his height, disrupted the rhythm of his preparations for the 2013 season and undermined his confidence.  At the Memphis indoor tournament in February, he lost his opener in straight sets to Denis Istomin, a player who normally should not have troubled him.  But his slump reached its nadir at Indian Wells, the scene of his greatest triumph to date.  Returning to the California desert, Isner lost his first match to Lleyton Hewitt as virtually every component of his game abandoned him at critical moments.  With that loss came the loss of his status as the top-ranked American man, now held by Sam Querrey.

A man who shines most on home soil, Isner desperately needed to avoid a similar exit at the outset of the Miami tournament.  With the long European swing ahead, he could not afford to let his confidence sink any lower before the inevitable setbacks on the red clay that dulls his greatest weapons.  The Sony Open thus loomed large in the trajectory of his season as his last chance to regroup before the US Open Series in July.  Against the occasionally dangerous Croat Ivan Dodig, who has defeated Nadal on North American hard courts before, Isner needed all of his perseverance and first-strike power to survive.

While he dropped serve four times across the three sets, an uncharacteristic number for him, the towering man from the University of Georgia showed resilience in rallying from losing the first set and from the brink of defeat in the third.  Breaking Isner at 5-5 in the final set, Dodig served for the match at a stage when the reeling competitor across the net might well have resigned himself to a third straight loss.  Despite the sweltering heat and his inconsistent form, Isner persevered to strike some of his best returns and play some of his most opportunistic tennis in the twelfth game and in the tiebreak that followed.  Taking a lead at the outset, he never trailed in the tiebreak as he approached the net aggressively behind his serves and stayed just consistent enough from the baseline to earn the crucial mini-break that he needed for a 4-6, 7-5, 7-6(5) victory.

Finishing the match with a thunderous first serve out wide, Isner showed just how much the victory meant to him by leaping in the air on his way to the net for the handshake.  Even in view of the match’s airtight scoreline, that reaction might have surprised some onlookers because of his favored status and the early-round setting.  But the context in which this victory came provided ample explanation for Isner’s delight in eking out the type of nail-biting epic that he has played so often in his career.  These are the matches that can restore a player’s confidence in his ability to deliver at key moments, so the tenuous nature of his triumph in fact might have boosted him more than a routine win would have.

Always a perfectionist who demands a lot from himself, Isner expressed disappointment about losing his serve so often on a day when he otherwise had strong serving statistics.  But he found it “a positive that I lost my serve four times and was still able to win the match.”  Isner also acknowledged that he “needed [the win] for sure” because of a difficult season in which he had “lost matches I feel like I could have won,” always a demoralizing feeling for a tennis player.

It will not get any easier from here for the tall American, who faces another imposing server in Marin Cilic next and likely would meet Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the fourth round should he reach that stage.  But, considering how his 2013 season has gone, Isner should continue to take one step at a time and see how far each of them can lead him.  As he put it, “I’m just happy to get through.  I certainly could have easily lost that match.”  “But once I got that little spark, gave me a little extra energy, and you know, it went from there.”