This year's Miami Open marks unfamiliar territory for John Isner

This year's Miami Open marks unfamiliar territory for John Isner

For the first time in his career, the top-ranked American male will be defending a Masters 1000 title.

Make no mistake about it, John Isner, America’s top-ranked male, knows how to defend a title.

He’s won the Newport title on grass two years running toward the start of the decade; notched a three-peat performance—and will be working on another this year—in Atlanta; and has put together back-to-back triumphs in Winston-Salem, N.C., before the start of the US Open.

However, as the returning champion at the Miami Open this year, Isner will be entering personal uncharted territory: This will be his first time trying to retain a title of such magnitude.

Does the world No. 9 have another surprise run in store to come out on top again at one of the game’s most prestigious events?

Prior to last year, Isner had advanced to the championship round at three other Masters 1000 events: Indian Wells in 2012, Cincinnati in 2013 and Paris in 2016. In those matches, he fell to Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, respectively. While those members of the ATP’s “Big 4” halted his title charge, Isner picked up his share of notable wins during those runs. At Indian Wells, he stopped the defending champion and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. A year later in Cincinnati, the unseeded Isner topped Milos Raonic, Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro, and at the Paris Masters in 2016, when he was once again unseeded, David Ferrer, Jack Sock and Marin Cilic were among his vanquished opponents.

Despite that past history at the Masters tournaments, his run to the title in Miami was unexpected to most observers of the game. Always at his best in the second half of the season, Isner got off to a notoriously awful start at the beginning of 2018 as he kicked off the year with a 2-6 singles record, only advancing past the first round at a tournament once and posting his other win in Davis Cup. At Indian Wells, the first Masters event of the year, he suffered his fifth opening-round match of the early season.

While his singles campaign in the desert left something to be desired, Isner and his compatriot Jack Sock captured the doubles title, defeating Bob and Mike Bryan in the final for their second career Masters title together. Taking the positives from that accomplishment, Isner went into Miami eager to put the recent past behind him. Sharp from the beginning, he defeated the dangerous young Czech Jiri Vesely in three sets in the second round, then followed that up with a straight-set win against the veteran Mikhail Youzhny.

From there, Isner only got stronger: He toppled the second seed Cilic, 2018 Australian Open semifinalist Hyeon Chung and Del Potro, all in straight sets, to reach the fourth Masters final of his career. In the final, he beat the fourth seed Alexander Zverev for the first time after three previous losses to complete the biggest—and one of the most surprising—title runs of his career.

As he prepares to defend his title, Isner is actually performing better on the singles court than he was at this time a year ago: Before reaching the fourth round in Indian Wells, the American advanced to three straight semifinals, all on hard courts. In each of those final-four defeats, he fell in three sets to lower-ranked opponents, and could have potentially been looking at a run of consecutive finals—or titles.

It’s a good position to be in, playing solidly coming into a tournament that, to this point, has created the highlight of his career. His path to retaining the title this year is difficult as he’s in the same section of the draw as Lucas Pouille, Raonic and Djokovic, with a potential semifinal against Dominic Thiem—fresh off the title in Indian Wells—looming.

Isner’s shown repeatedly throughout his career that he can handle the pressure of being a defending champion. Now, the Miami Open presents the opportunity to see if he can do it again on one of the game’s biggest stages.