Tennis

American John Isner goes out a champion as Key Biscayne hosts final match

John Isner holds the trophy after defeating Alexander Zverev in three sets at the Men's Final at the Miami Open on Key Biscayne, Florida, April 1, 2018.
John Isner holds the trophy after defeating Alexander Zverev in three sets at the Men's Final at the Miami Open on Key Biscayne, Florida, April 1, 2018. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

The Miami Open will leave its beloved tropical Key Biscayne home with a bang after 32-year-old American John Isner overpowered emerging German star Alexander “Sascha” Zverev 6-7 (4-7), 6-4, 6-4 on Sunday in a scintillating men’s final befitting the historic occasion.

The weather was Chamber of Commerce perfect. The crowd included Miami Major League Soccer team owner David Beckham, who posed for selfies with fans and watched from a suite with his children and his MLS partner, Marcelo Claure.

Heat players Josh Richardson, Rodney McGruder and Jordan Mickey were also in the stands as two of the tour’s tallest players — 6-10 Isner and 6-6 Zverev — battled in the last men’s final before the tournament moves to Hard Rock Stadium in 2019.

Isner unleashed three aces in a row to end the match and had 18 on the day. He jumped up and down following his improbable victory, as fans chanted: “Key Biscayne! Key Biscayne!”

Isner, wearing a yellow shirt as bright as the midday sun, became the first U.S. male champion on Key Biscayne since Andy Roddick in 2010. Sloane Stephens won the women’s title on Saturday, making it the first time since 2004 that Americans swept the men’s and women’s titles (Roddick and Serena Williams won in 2004).

Americans also dominated in doubles. Twins Mike and Bob Bryan won the men’s title, and Coco Vandeweghe paired with Australian Ashleigh Barty to win women’s doubles.

Isner turns 33 this month and never imagined coming into this Miami Open that he would emerge as champion. He had played seven matches this season and lost six of them. He was ranked No. 17, and was 0-3 against Zverev, 20, who is ranked No. 4 in the world.

“It’s crazy,” Isner said. “This tournament has so much history. All the best players have played here through the years. I never thought I would be in this moment considering how I was playing coming into this event.

“For me to come out the winner in the last men’s singles match ever here is pretty unique.”

Isner collected his trophy, a $1.3 million check and got choked up during his on-court speech

“This atmosphere was electric, it was unbelievable, you can’t replicate moments like this,” he said. “I’m at the latter part of my career, and this was the best moment of my career, and you guys made that possible.”

Isner first became aware of Zverev’s talent six years ago at the Saddlebrook Resort in Tampa, when then 14-year-old Zverev showed up at practice with his older brother, Mischa.

“Sascha would kind of follow his older brother Mischa around, and at some point, one of my coaches told me, ‘Watch out for this kid,’ ” Isner recalled. “Then I started practicing with him when he was 14, 15 years old, and he’s beating me at 15 years old. I’m, like, ‘Oh, my gosh. He’s the real deal.’

“It’s just kind of unique that someone that I was so much older than and practicing with when he was 14, 15, is now one of the best players in the world.”

Zverev thanked Isner for his tutelage.

“I want to thank you for teaching me how to play and practicing with me from such a young age,” Zverev said. “This is such a historic site for us. Sad we’re moving, but there’s great things coming the next few years. Maybe one day, John, you’ll tell me how it feels to win on these courts, because I’ll never know.”

Isner will move up to No. 9 in the world with the win.

“This is a big hurdle for me, mentally more than anything, to get over the hump in a tournament like this,” he said.

It began, he said, at dinner with his coach, David Macpherson, on the Wednesday before his first match.

“I hashed out what’s been holding me back, and it’s not more reps on the court,” Isner said. “It’s not more time in the gym. It was just mental things and myself being tight and tentative on the court. That’s the reason I was losing close matches.

“We cleared that hurdle. I went into every match super fresh mentally and loose. After each match I won, we would have another dinner, have another dinner, have another dinner and kept hammering that point, just be loose, and I will be a force if I can play freely, and I was able to do that.”

Isner got married three months ago and says that also changed him.

“I’m so happy where I’m at in my personal life,” he said. “It settles things down. I have been put in a very fortunate position. I’m married to the love of my life, and I play a sport for a living. It’s pretty special.

When the match was over, Isner wrote: “He is risen” on the TV camera lens. Winning on Easter Sunday had special meaning for him.

“I don’t talk about it too much, but [religion] is an important piece of my life,” Isner said. “Even more so now that I’m married. Whenever we are in town, we always go to church. I missed the service this morning, of course, but it’s an incredible day.”

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