Heading back to the Miami Open to defend the only Masters 1000 title he has ever won, John Isner had his work cut out for him. After a first-round bye, he was pushed into two tie-breaks by Italian qualifier Lorenzo Sonego but he came through that stern test. On Sunday, he ousted the formidable Spaniard Albert Ramos-Vinolas 7-5, 7-6 (6), playing the big points better than his left-handed adversary. And in the round of 16 today, he confronted Great Britain’s best player in Kyle Edmund, an extraordinary ball striker off both sides. Isner secured a third consecutive hard-fought victory to move into the quarterfinals, toppling the No. 19 seed 7-6 (5), 7-6 (3).
Isner has played six sets in the tournament and has not dropped a single one. He has gone 5-0 in tie-breaks. This is simply a fact of life for the 33-year-old American. He is frequently engaged in the tightest of contests, and the make-or-break moments in his career occur almost always for this prodigious server in those critical tiebreakers.
Over the course of his first six tournaments prior to Miami, Isner had endured more than his share of hard luck in breakers, losing 10 of the 17 he played. That included a two tie-break loss to Taylor Fritz in his season-opening event at Auckland, a four-set defeat at the hands of Reilly Opelka at the Australian Open which featured four tie-breaks, a bruising third-set tiebreaker setback against Opelka at the New York Open, and another agonizing final set tie-break loss against Nick Kyrgios in the semifinals of Acapulco. Most recently, Isner was beaten by Karen Khachanov 6-4, 7-6 at Indian Wells.
In light of all those arduous experiences, it is all the more remarkable that Isner has fared so well in every tie-break he has played on the hard courts of Miami. His appointment with Edmund was an intriguing one. They had split two previous career confrontations, with Edmund prevailing in their most recent showdown, ironically upending Isner in a fourth set tiebreaker in the third round of the 2016 US Open.
This time around in Florida, Isner seemed almost certain to avoid the capricious territory of a tie-break in the first set of his duel with Edmund. He broke in the sixth game of that opening set when Edmund double faulted at 0-40. Isner served three aces in the seventh game, holding at 30 for 5-2. But serving into a glaring sun combined with shadows stretching across a significant chunk of the court, Isner was broken when he served for the set at 5-3. Serving-and-volleying on every point to minimize the difficulties of sighting the ball, Isner was broken at love. Edmund held easily for 5-5. Predictably, both men held to bring about a tiebreaker.
Edmund commenced that sequence with unmistakable confidence. He gained a quick mini-break by snapping a forehand pass crosscourt with relish off a fine inside-in forehand approach from Isner. Isner missed a forehand volley on the stretch. Then Edmund released consecutive aces down the T to build a commanding 3-0 lead. When Isner pressed on a forehand and sent it long, Edmund had the cushion of a 4-1 lead with two service points to come.
But Isner took the next point with a deep return setting up a forehand winner. Although Edmund produced his third ace of the tie-break to lead 5-2, Isner had not lost hope. He took two points in a row on serve to close the gap to 5-4, and then Edmund, surely troubled by the sun in his eyes, double faulted for 5-5. On the next point, he netted an easy forehand off a hanging return from Isner, and suddenly Isner found himself with the set on his racket. He met that moment boldly, serving an ace out wide in the ad court, winning the tiebreaker, 7-5, boosting his morale considerably by sweeping five points in a row to salvage a set that had seemed like a lost cause.
Both players steadfastly held their serves all across the second set. Neither player moved even remotely close to a service break. They played first-rate tennis all the way through that set to set up a second tiebreaker, with Edmund realizing the burden was on him to take that sequence or be removed from the tournament, while Isner did not want to play another set when he was now within striking distance of a straight-set triumph.
Edmund opened with an impeccably placed ace down the T. The tie-break was entirely on serve until Edmund was stationed at 3-4. Isner ran around his backhand to thump an inside out forehand return, provoking an errant backhand down the line from the British competitor. Now serving at 3-5, standing only two points from defeat, Edmund was a very unlucky fellow on the ninth point. A fan screamed out in the middle of a neutral rally. Edmund was distracted and, for an instant, seemed to stop playing the point. He then continued, but umpire Carlos Bernardes ruled that Edmund, by stopping in the middle of that exchange, had conceded the point.
Bernardes is among the elite umpires in the sport, and he surely knew what he was doing. It was a judgment call that he had every right to make. But fair-minded observers would have leaned heavily toward playing a let. Be that as it may, Isner stood at 6-3 and triple match point. With one swing of the racket, the match was over. An Isner ace out wide—his 17th of the match—was the finishing touch. He deservedly advanced in straight sets, pouring in 79 percent of his first serves, losing his serve only once, and outplaying his adversary when the stakes were highest.
After an inauspicious start to 2019, Isner is going strong. He was 0-2 after the Australian Open but has since captured 13 of his last 17 matches. He will turn 34 in a month but the feeling grows that John Isner is going to celebrate a very productive 2019 campaign that will replicate his 2018 season in many ways.