There have, it is true, been some notable gaps in the draws at Masters in the last 12 months: Federer opting out of all the clay tournaments, and troubled by back problems in Montreal and Cincinnati; Djokovic, Murray, and Wawrinka absent in the latter half of 2017 and into 2018 as they nursed injuries and subsequent surgery; Nadal unable to conclude the 2017 season or compete in this year’s Masters thus far as he nursed a hip problem.
So a few new names made hay and broke through the glass ceiling: The youngest and most high-profile #NextGen star, Alexander Zverev, won two Masters. And a pair of talented men born in the early 1990s made their move, Grigor Dimitrov and Jack Sock, to pick up one apiece. All three qualified for the World Tour Finals.
But come Indian Wells and Miami, there were still more changes afoot. By the quarter-finals in California’s tennis garden, Federer was the only Masters champion still in contention: He did, though, fall one win short of the title.
The balance was made up of fellow veterans—the likes of Philipp Kohlschreiber and Feliciano Lopez—and unseeded surprises—like Jeremy Chardy and Marcos Baghdatis. And then there was a set of top-20 players who had once in a while threatened at Masters or Majors before: Kevin Anderson, Sam Querrey, Milos Raonic.
Even more exciting was the appearance of more young players eager to make their mark, players breaking new ground at this level: Hyeon Chung and Borna Coric stood out—and they would stand out again in Miami, as both put together career-best runs, and break new ranking ground, Chung into the top 20, Coric into the top 30.
But one man in both Masters draws was looking to make his own piece of history, almost a decade after he broke another “Big Four” glass ceiling to win a Major: Juan Martin del Potro. He had made the final of a Masters three times before this year but had never won—until Indian Wells, in a superb contest against one of his biggest rivals, Federer.
He arrived in Miami on a two-title run, having won in Acapulco, too. One by one, he continued to pick off opponents, and reached the semi-final with his 15th consecutive match-win, his 21st of the season, playing the kind of big-time tennis that had taken him to No4 in the ranks in early 2010. And it had been far from a cake walk. In Mexico, he beat three top-10 men; in Indian Wells, it was No1 Federer; and thus far in Miami, he had beaten three seeds, including a three-hour three-set marathon against Raonic.
He would assuredly have remained a thorn in the side of the entire “Big Four” were it not for repeated injury absences and comebacks. Four lots of wrist surgery took him out of the tour just as he reached the peak of his powers, winning the US Open title before he turned 20 and reaching the No4 ranking three months later in January 2010.
He had dropped outside the top 300, returned to the top 10, sunk again, and was now back in the top 10 for the first time in four years. But if he could add just two more victories to his run, he would achieve three huge milestones in one: his first Masters title, and with it the Sunshine Double—plus a career-high rank of No3.
But he faced in John Isner another man who had made three Masters finals without lifting the trophy, another man targeting a return to the top 10, and one of the few in Miami who could expect as much support as del Potro: an American.
This would be their 10th meeting, and while the Argentine led 6-3, Isner had won three of their last five meetings, and he was trying to become the first American to reach the Miami final since Andy Roddick. He quickly looked determined to do just that.
Time and again, he skipped backward to swipe a forehand winner, broke, and took a 3-0 lead. Already, he had notched up nine winners to none from the Argentine.
It was vital that del Potro get his first serve into play, but by the time he faced deuce in the fourth game, he had hit only three into the box. The Argentine held, 1-3, but the American rout continued all the way to the set in an extraordinary 26 minutes of attacking, fast-paced tennis from Isner, who fired 19 winners past his opponent, while del Potro managed none at all.
In the second set, Isner was all energy, on his toes, stepping in for first-strike returns. And his fastest second serve was the same speed as del Potro’s first. The Argentine did find more energy, but it was clear he was feeling the weight of so many matches.
Isner hit a staggering forehand at 117mph to hold for 2-2, but del Potro replied with a rare love hold. The Argentine did so again to hold for 4-3, and the Miami stadium roared its approval. He may have been playing an American, but the Argentine garners huge support wherever he plays, and the Miami Masters is the closest that South America has to a home tournament at this level: They come in their thousands.
In the ninth game, del Potro looked in danger as he double faulted, and then volleyed into the net. He survived a break point, held with a pitch-perfect drop shot, and managed to take Isner to a tie-break, but with the American serving at such a high level, and perfecting his one-two, serve-and-forehand punch, the odds were stacked.
Sure enough, Isner built on his momentum with his 19th forehand winner of the match for 3-0. But just as significant, he had kept the formidable del Potro forehand out of action: The Argentine had made just three winners off his most dangerous wing.
Isner fired down a 137mph ace for 4-2, and would not concede another point. One more ace, his 13th of the match, and a drop-volley winner, and the 32-year-old American was into the final, 7-6(2).
He had hit an exceptional 39 winners to only 10 from del Potro, but admitted afterwards that the biggest improvement he has made to his tennis this year was his self-belief: He was no longer getting down on himself at crucial moment, and that certainly showed in this free-hitting performance.
For his first Masters title, he will face either Zverev—who has once again shown that he may be the chief torch-bearer for the new generation with some strong wins over David Ferrer, Nick Kyrgios and Coric—or Pablo Carreno Busta. If Isner can keep that confidence and uninhibited ball-striking, it may be him rather than one of the youngsters who next breaks that “Big Four” glass ceiling.
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BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge
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