Just relax, man: How John Isner won the biggest title of his career

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- The Miami Open final lasted 2½ hours. It was a grind, in some ways a snapshot of finalist John Isner's career. After all, he was the prime actor in the longest match in tennis history. A specialist in playing tiebreakers, Isner has labored long and hard. But at age 32, he had yet to win a Big One.

All that changed on Easter Sunday in the final match of the last Miami Open to play out in Crandon Park. At times during the final, it seemed the tournament itself was determined to squeeze every last bit of drama from the last singles match it would host. But as shadows lengthened, Isner drilled three consecutive aces to finish off No. 4 Alexander Zverev 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4. An era at this venue had ended.

"Maybe you can tell me what if feels like to win here," Zverev said, addressing Isner during the trophy presentation, "because I'll never experience it."

An early loss of star power combined with the lame-duck status of this event threatened to make this Miami Open a gloomy affair. Instead, it evolved into glossy celebration of American tennis as, outside of Isner, Sloane Stephens won the women's event and Bob and Mike Bryan won doubles.

Isner's wait to hoist a prestigious Masters 1000 singles trophy had been a long one. He appeared in three previous finals but lost each time to a member of tennis' vaunted big four. He was a semifinalist on five other occasions at Masters, including two last year. But his chances appeared to be slipping as 2018 progressed.

Outside of Davis Cup, Isner had just one win this year before Miami. But on the first Wednesday of the event, he had dinner with his coach, David Macpherson (whom Isner shares with the Bryans). "We hashed out what's been holding me back," Isner explained after the final. "And it wasn't more reps on the court, more time in the gym. I'd been doing that all along."

The problem for Isner was strictly mental. He couldn't shake a tendency to get tight and tentative on the court; it was getting worse as time went on. He was holding back his own game, he said, and losing close matches.

"Somehow, we cleared that hurdle over that dinner," Isner said. "From then on, I went into my matches fresh and loose, and we had dinner after dinner to keep hammering home that point, to be loose."

Isner almost forgot his lesson in the first set of the final. He squandered half a dozen break point chances and mangled the tiebreaker, losing four straight points after leading 4-3 with two serves to come. It was dispiriting, partly because he also felt fatigued. But the crowd wouldn't abandon him, and he resolved to keep trying.

"Somewhere along in the second set, I found a second wind and felt much better," Isner said. "To win like that, with a crowd like that, you just can't replicate that."

That sudden resurgence of energy and will wasn't the only interesting takeaway in this final. Isner had mentored Zverev, 20, when the German was just 14 and training at the same Saddlebrook facility near Tampa, Florida.

"It was unique, that someone I'm so much older than, and had practiced with when he was a kid, is now one of the best players in the world," Isner said. "I never imagined I could play him in a match like this. It's crazy for Sasha and I to share the court in the last singles final of the tournament."

Isner remembers Zverev as the "little kid" who constantly trailed around after his older brother, Mischa. But at some point, one of Isner's coaches told him, "Watch out for that kid." Curious, Isner sought out Alexander, invited him to practice. It began a relationship.

"By 15, he was beating me," Isner said. "I was like, 'Gosh, this kid is a big deal.'"

Zverev remains thankful for the attention Isner once paid him. During the trophy presentation, he turned to Isner and said, "Thank you for teaching me the game and practicing with me so much. Even though don't believe it now, you're a big part of what I do on the court now."

Zverev already had two of the Masters titles coming into Miami. But he denied that sentiment or sympathy for Isner had anything to do with the outcome.

"I missed more [baseline] shots today than during the whole tournament," Zverev said, adding, "It's not easy against John. You always feel pressure. If you get broken, it's unlikely you win the set. Maybe that was a factor why I made a lot of mistakes."

Was this just an example of karma, Isner earning a reward for his mentorship in the most poignant way possible? We'll never know. Regardless, we do know Isner and Zverev gave fans one last unforgettable moment on Key Biscayne.