There exists loads of talent and promise in many of the young players on the ATP World Tour, but if the last few years have shown us anything, it’s that men’s professional tennis remains an older man’s game.
When you look at the Grand Slam winners from the last two seasons, the names you see are Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, all of whom are north of the 30-year-old mark.
But the reign of the 30-somethings extends beyond just those all-time greats, and includes American John Isner who, at 33-years-old, enjoyed the best season of his career in 2018. For the first time in his career, Isner concluded a season ranked inside the top 10.
“At 33, that’s a pretty remarkable achievement for me,” said Isner while he was in London competing in the ATP Finals. “I’ve been in the Top 20 now for nine consecutive years … that’s 11 to 19 for nine straight years I’ve been in that gap, but I broke through that this year, which I’m very proud of.”
Isner’s year did not start off with the same promise with which it concluded. The 6’10” American dropped his first three ATP matches of the season, including at the ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand, and in the opening round of the Australian Open.
The third on that list came on Long Island, a disappointing 6-7(5), 6-3, 4-6 defeat to Radu Albot in his debut match at the inaugural New York Open.
“I don’t know,” Isner said after that defeat. “He had the momentum, I had the momentum. I just wasn’t able to sustain it, which is disappointing. A lot of times, I have been in a match like that, I win the second set and start playing better, I carry that over to the third. But I didn’t do that.”
The day is always darkest before the dawn, as they say, and those early 2018 struggles laid the groundwork for a strong finish. After tripping up in Acapulco and Indian Wells, Isner headed to south Florida to compete in a loaded Miami Open field.
After moving past Jiri Vesely and Mikhail Youzhny in his first two matches, Isner took out some of the top players in the game consecutively, starting with a straight-sets win over third-ranked Marin Cilic. He then ousted talented young South Korean Hyeon Chung in the quarterfinals before defeating sixth-ranked Juan Martin del Potro and fifth-ranked Alexander Zverev in the semifinals and finals, respectively, to claim the Miami Open title.
“You can’t replicate moments like this,” said Isner during the Miami Open trophy ceremony. “I’m toward the latter part of my career, and this is the best moment of my career. I couldn’t have scripted this. I was playing very poorly. But that’s the way tennis goes. You gain a little confidence, and things start to roll your way.”
With that confidence in tow, Isner’s Miami Open triumph was the beginning of a fantastic run for the remaining part of the 2019 season. He would reach the Round of 16 at Roland Garros before competing at Wimbledon, where his breakout season continued.
Having never been out of the quarterfinals at one of the four majors, Isner put an end to that streak and advanced to a Grand Slam semifinal for the first time in his career, and squared off against Kevin Anderson.
In what would turn out to be a marathon five-set match, Isner battled for six hours and 36 minutes with Anderson, losing in heartbreaking fashion by the score of 24-26 in the fifth set. It was the second longest match in Wimbledon history, with the longest having also involved Isner as he beat Nicolas Mahut 70-68 in the fifth set back in 2010.
It was a crushing way for Isner’s longest major run to come to an end.
“I felt all right out there. I mean, now I feel much worse, once you come down from the match. You have a lot of adrenaline and whatnot; that helps. That can mask a lot of things,” Isner said after the defeat. “I competed hard. That’s what it comes down to. That’s what I have to be proud of. It stinks to lose, but I gave it everything I had out there. I just lost to someone who is just a little bit better at the end and I guess he just won a few more of the bigger points. Right now, I feel terrible. I work hard at what I do. I feel like I’m in pretty good shape. I think it showed out there today.”
The match took both a physical and emotional toll on Isner.
“When I played the long match in 2010 against Mahut, what bothered me the most was my neck: said Isner. “That really troubled me then. But this year it was my feet. I had some blisters. One was about the size of two quarters and I had to get it drained right after the match, which wasn’t that pleasant. But the recovery process was probably tougher mentally than anything just knowing how close I was to the Wimbledon finals.”
Although physically and mentally worn out from his run in London, Isner came back to the states and played some great tennis, capturing the Atlanta title and reaching the U.S. Open quarterfinals, and qualified for the end-of-year ATP Finals.
“It means a lot to be here,” Isner said of reaching the ATP Finals. “I’ve been very close throughout my career. It just hasn’t quite happened. I also realize that I’m pretty fortunate to be here as well this year. That said, I’ve had a very good year and I put myself in position to make this event. And at 33, to be competing in my first Nitto ATP Finals is very satisfying. This is certainly a life-changer, all for the good.”
It was a life-changing year off of the court for Isner as well as his wife, Madison, gave birth to the couple’s first child, Hunter Grace, back in September.
“First thing in the morning, my focus is on her,” said Isner as he discussed how being a father has helped his tennis game. “I think the most important thing that does is help you relax on the court, and when I play my best, I’m relaxed on the court. Having something like this to come home to, helps you calm down on court.”
With a renewed focus and perspective on his family life, Isner played some of the best tennis and achieved the top results of his career in 2018, something he hopes to carry into 2019. One of his immediate goals in 2019 is to make up for his showing at last year’s New York Open, a tournament he is looking forward to being a part of again.
“I’m very much looking forward to playing in New York again,” he said. “I did not play that great last year unfortunately, but I’m hoping in the future it becomes a tournament like Atlanta for me. I’m very comfortable and I’ve done well there. New York is a tournament I enjoyed so much even though I wasn’t around that long. I think all the players did. The newly renovated NYCB LIVE was one of the nicer places I’ve ever played in. It’s got all the makings of a tournament for me to do well in, it just didn’t happen last year. But I’m looking forward to getting another crack at it in 2019.”
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org