Baseball once had a player nicknamed the Big Hurt. Basketball has had one who was called the Big Ticket. After Sunday’s men’s final at the Miami Open, tennis might want to start calling John Isner the Big Possum. Every time the 32-year-old looked like he was out—doubled-over, legless, down for the count—he pulled himself back in. His reward was the biggest victory of his 11-year career.
“It’s crazy,” Isner told ESPN after beating 20-year-old German Alexander Zverev 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4 for his first Masters 1000 title. “I was the most tired at the end of the first set and the beginning of the second. I got a second wind.”
It was a wind that, after roughly 80 minutes, appeared to have gone completely out of Isner’s sails. For most of the first set, he had been the superior player; as he had against Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals. Isner had connected on his returns, pushed Zverev around with his forehand, and driven his backhand with more authority than anyone had ever seen from him.
“He’s hitting his backhand like he’s had that shot his whole career,” an incredulous Darren Cahill said of Isner, after the American laced one for a winning pass.
Yet when it came time to close out the set, Isner wilted. Up 4-3 in the tiebreaker, he began to huff and puff; two shanked ground strokes and a double fault later, the set was Zverev’s. For the next 20 minutes, it looked like the match would be Zverev’s as well. Isner took extra time on changeovers, and took as little time as possible contesting Zverev’s service games. As for his own serve, Isner steadily upped its velocity—it was win-quickly-or-don’t-win-at-all time for the American.
“He. Is. Gassed,” Brad Gilbert said from the sidelines.
The thing is, we’ve seen Isner doubled-over before; we saw him that way for roughly five hours during his most famous match, against Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010. That day Isner got off the mat to win, and he did the same thing to stun Zverev.
By 4-4 in the second set, Zverev apparently believed Isner was just trying to reach a tiebreaker, because the German let his guard down. He double faulted at game point, missed a forehand at deuce, and watched as Isner put a forehand on the outside of the sideline to break.
With that shot, the wind was officially back in the American’s sails. He leaped, he hopped, his threw his arms in the air, and then, serving at 5-4, he saved two break points and closed out a long game with his fastest serve of the day, at 143 m.p.h. Isner, suddenly channeling Jimmy Connors, wagged his finger at all four corners of the arena.
Never change a winning game, they say, and, happily for Isner, the third set went the same way as the second. Again, after five games, he was doubled over and gasping. Again, he upped the pace on his serve to compensate; Isner held for 4-4 with a 140-m.p.h. bomb. Again, Zverev let his guard down in the eighth game. After netting another forehand, he was broken. It wasn’t long before his racquet was shattered, too.
Serving for the title at 5-4, Isner came out huffing and puffing again. This time, though, he was looking to blow Zverev’s house down. Bouncing Connors-like from one point to the next, he closed with three straight aces. Not only had Isner turned the match around, he had turned the crowd, which had favored Zverev for much of the day, to his side, too.
“I couldn’t have scripted it,” said Isner, who had won just two matches in 2018 before coming to Miami. “I was playing very poorly. But I was just ready for it.”
Zverev had looked ready to win his third ATP Masters 100 title as well. He had shown off his best, most aggressive form in his previous two matches, and on Sunday he had returned Isner’s serve as well as anyone can. But he had tried to run out the clock at the end; instead of going for his shots, he waited for Isner to miss. It’s not always the wrong tactic; Sloane Stephens did essentially the same thing the previous day against Jelena Ostapenko, and walked away with the title in straight sets. Maybe now Zverev, who was 3-0 against Isner coming in, will be on his guard at all times when he faces the Big Possum. It’s when he’s doubled-over that he’s most dangerous.
What does this lightning-strike win mean for Isner? He struggled to explain it himself. Asked before the match what he was doing differently, Isner paused and said, “Playing well.” Afterward, he thanked his coach and his chiropractor and finally just said, “Tennis is a funny sport.” With each win, he gained a little more confidence, until he found himself on a full-fledged roll by Friday.
Five years ago, we might have wondered if Isner was now ready to win a major, or crack the Top 10, or become the Future of American Tennis. In 2018, with the North Carolina native well into his 30s, there’s no reason to look beyond Miami; in many ways, this is the victory he has been waiting for.
Not only did Isner play with the purpose and assertiveness that have often been missing from his game, by Sunday afternoon he was playing with newfound positivity and emotion. In the past, Isner has been annoyed when an American crowd cheers for his European opponent. This time, instead of letting the Miami fans’ support for Zverev get under his skin, Isner gave them a reason to stand and roar for him.
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