Sloane Stephens won her first Premier Mandatory tournament via no fewer than three former No1s and four Major champions, to clinch her fourth title on home soil. And not just home soil but in her home state.
She was followed onto the winners’ podium by the prolific doubles champions, Bob and Mike Bryan. The remarkable 39-year-old twins clinched a fifth Miami title, their 27th Masters title, their 115th tour title, and against a pair whose combined ages barely exceeded that of each of their American opponents. The Bryans won, 4-6, 7-6(5), 10-4, over 20-year-old Andrey Rublev and 21-year-old Karen Khachanov.
Could another 30-something American also capture the men’s singles title? John Isner, the 6ft 10ins 32-year-old with one of the most feared serves in tennis, also found himself in a battle of the generations. He would face the 20-year-old #NextGen star Alexander Zverev, who even at his tender age had done what Isner had so far failed to do: Win a Masters title—indeed two of them.
The young German had also beaten Isner in three previous matches, and most memorably in Miami itself last year. That one lasted two hours 38 minutes, took three tie-break sets, and Zverev won just two points more out of the 228 played saving three match-points along the way.
Zverev, such a stand-out talent as soon as he hit the pro tour, began winning titles as a tall and still willowy teenager, but last year was a break-out season for the increasingly fast and muscular 20-year-old. He strode to five titles, beating Novak Djokovic for the Rome Masters title and Roger Federer for the Montreal Masters title. It took him to No3 and to the World Tour Finals.
On paper, then, despite a less-than-standout start to 2018, he was the favourite over his older adversary. He had, after all, withstood the determined David Ferrer and some of the best that the new generation of players could throw at him, the likes of Daniil Medvedev, Nick Kyrgios, and Borna Coric.
Isner, for his part, had so far failed to win a Masters from his previous three finals. What is more, his had been a tawdry start to 2018: six tour events played, one match won—until Miami. Perhaps it was the Florida vibe—he too calls this part of the country his home—or perhaps it is the calmer, less stressed mind-set that he credited with his outstanding run this fortnight.
Whatever the cause, his form had been exemplary: He beat No2 seed Marin Cilic, the impressive No19 seed Hyeon Chung, and then ended Juan Martin del Potro’s 15-match streak. The No17-ranked Isner was already guaranteed a return to the top 10, but clinching that elusive Masters would undoubtedly be the biggest prize of his career.
Isner started strongly, but could not convert three break chances in the second game. Then it was the German’s turn to see an opening, 0-30 in the fifth game, as Isner double faulted. But that rock-solid head found a touch-volley winner, then a 139mph ace, and a smash winner. He aced again on break point to hold a seven-minute game.
But again, Isner failed to convert at 15-40 in the sixth game, and while his backhand down the line was performing well, the big American forehand was not earning points as easily. Zverev, meanwhile, looked calm and composed. He had survived a couple of stern tests, and was seeing openings even against an average of 134mph on Isner’s first serves. The two edged to a tie-break as the German threw in a fine service hold.
Zverev now drew on the mental smartness he brings to his strong all-round game, returned a big serve at Isner’s feet, and drew a volley error for the first advantage. It was tight on both sides, but an uncharacteristic Isner double fault gave Zverev the chance to serve it out, and he did so with a roar to his box, 7-6(4).
Almost an hour, and thus far a near identical scenario to last year—except this time Zverev had the first set, even with fewer winners than errors, and only seven winners to Isner’s 20.
Now Zverev seemed to have the bit between his teeth, serving first, and he dropped just one point in his first three service games. Isner’s head drooped, his efforts draining those long legs, but he held on, and gradually his own serve picked up its level.
So when Zverev made a couple of errors, Isner found that huge cross-court forehand, and got the break. He pumped to the crowd, and they responded. He would serve for the set, but had to raise his level to stave off two break points and some brilliant running defence from the German, 6-4.
Zverev, though, is not a double Masters champion or No5 in the world for nothing. He opened the third set with a love hold, and fought off a break point in a long third game.
Isner, who had looked the more exhausted, found renewed intensity, and three great forehands earned him four chances to break, but the younger player showed great heart, aced, fired a forehand winner, and held. But after a love hold, Zverev faced trouble again, Isner played safe, and Zverev netted an easy forehand. He was broken, 4-5, and his racket quickly followed.
So Isner stepped up to serve for the biggest title of his career almost two and a half hours after the match began, and did it in style: three aces, a love hold, 6-4.
The young German was articulate and generous in his loss:
“Congratulations, John, you deserve to be a Masters champion, you’ve been to the finals so many times. Doing it here is so special. I want to thank you for teaching me and practising with me from such a young age.”
Isner replied in kind:
“I really appreciate those words. We’ve known each for seven or eight years—I was practising with him when he was 14. You already have a couple of these—I appreciate you letting me have one! I see the work you put in, and you deserve everything you get.”
This victory, as the rest of his matches over the last 10 days had done, showed an Isner willing to play free, uninhibited tennis, take risks, hit 44 winners as well as 37 errors, take to the net—he only won 17 points there, but tried his luck 31 times—and even the super-fit athletic 20-year-old could not deny him.
All that, and as he turns 33 next month, Isner becomes the oldest first-time winner of a Masters. Indeed, only two other players, Andre Agassi and Federer, have won any Masters at an older age.
There was one more chance for the home nation to bid an appropriate farewell to Crandon Park. Coco Vandeweghe joined forces with Australian Ashleigh Barty for only the second time, having lost in the first round at Indian Wells. In Miami, though, they had put out the top seeds in the semi-finals: now they had to do the same against the No6 seeds.
It took them just over an hour, but sure enough, one last American got to stand atop the winners’ podium. Vandeweghe and Barty won, 6-2, 6-1, to bring the curtain down on Crandon Park in style.
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