How Dolphins legend Larry Csonka played a role in John Isner’s Miami Open win Sunday

First day of the 2019 Miami Open tennis tournament at Hard Rock Stadium

First day of the 2019 Miami Open tennis tournament at Hard Rock Stadium after 30 years on Key Biscayne, March 18, 2019.
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First day of the 2019 Miami Open tennis tournament at Hard Rock Stadium after 30 years on Key Biscayne, March 18, 2019.

John Isner was a four-time All-American at the University of Georgia before he became a professional tennis star, so he knows a thing or two about football.

He, perhaps more than any other player in the Miami Open draw, understands the history when he looks up from center court at Hard Rock Stadium and sees the names of retired Miami Dolphins stars on the ring of honor.

“I was warming up this morning and looking up at all the retired numbers and you see a guy like Larry Csonka and that sort of reminds me not to be a wimp out on the court because he’s one of the toughest guys ever,” said Isner, the 33-year-old defending Miami Open champion, who reached the Round of 16 on Sunday with a 7-5, 7-6 (8-6) win over Spaniard Albert Ramos-Vinolas.

“A lot of big games have been played here. The Dolphins had that crazy game against New England last year here at home. I think about it. It’s really cool.”

At 6-10, Isner is hard to miss as he roams around the tournament grounds; and yet, like last year, he is flying under the radar so far this week. Most of the spotlight is on Swiss legend Roger Federer and top-ranked six-time Miami Open champion Novak Djokovic, who was tested on Sunday but survived an early-evening match against Federico Delbonis, a lefty from Argentina. Djokovic won 7-5, 4-6, 6-1.

John Isner returns a ball hit by Albert Ramos-Vinolas at the 2019 Miami Open in Miami Gardens, Florida, Sunday, March, 24, 2019. CHARLES TRAINOR JR

“It was very close and could have gone a different way, but I managed to hold my nerves,” said Djokovic, who is 22-1 at the Miami Open while ranked No. 1. “I lost my focus, had some bad service games, and credit to Federico, who was playing well.”

His next opponent is Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut, who beat Djokovic earlier this year in the semifinal at Doha after Djokovic was up a set and a break. “I’ll definitely do my homework on him,” Djokovic said Sunday night. Agut eliminated Italian Fabio Fognini 6-4, 6-4 on Sunday in front of a lively crowd on Court 1 in the corner of the grounds.

Novak Djokovic returns a ball to Fererico Delbonis at the 2019 Miami Open at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, Sunday, March, 24, 2019. CHARLES TRAINOR JR

“Historically, Indian Wells and Miami have been really successful tournaments for me,” Djokovic said. “Miami is obviously a special place because this is where I won my first big title, my first Masters event, back in 2007 and that has opened a lot of doors for me and made me believe in myself even more. So, coming back to Miami I try to refresh those memories, even though I’m at a different venue at the moment.”

On the women’s side, defending champion and sixth-ranked Sloane Stephens was knocked out in the third round 6-3, 6-2 by 62nd-ranked Tatjana Maria of Germany. It was Stephens’ third loss this season to a player ranked below 50 and the fourth year in a row the reigning women’s champion doesn’t defend her Miami Open title.

Simona Halep, the No. 2 seed, reached the fourth round with a 5-7, 7-6 (7-1), 6-2 victory over Polona Hercog of Slovenia. Venus Williams reached the round of 16 for the sixteenth time, dominating Daria Kasatkina of Russia 6-3, 6-1 in just over an hour. Halep faces Williams on Monday afternoon.

Isner, who is seeded No. 7, will face 19th-seeded Kyle Edmund of Great Britain in the next round. Edmund, the 2018 Australian Open semifinalist, is having the best Miami Open of his career. He had failed to reach the second round in his five previous attempts. Edmund was born in South Africa, raised in Britain, and since 2017 has been based in the Bahamas.

Venus Williams returns a ball hit by Daria Kasatkina 2019 at the Miami Open in Miami Gardens, Florida, Sunday, March, 24, 2019. CHARLES TRAINOR JR

They have met twice before – both times in 2016 – and each won once.

The Miami Open Stadium Court is playing to Isner’s liking so far, especially early in the day.

“It’s not quite as intimate as Crandon Park but I really like it out there, especially at the beginning of the match, when the sun was out,” he said. “The court was pretty lively and that, of course, helps my game because the ball bounces pretty high. I really enjoy that center court and this whole tournament. I heard (32,000) fans showed up Saturday. That’s fantastic.”

Isner said although he is technically trying to defend his Miami Open title, the tournament has such a different feel at the new venue that it’s almost like a brand, new event.

“It is still my tournament to defend, but you usually go back to the same site,” he said. “But I think with that there’s maybe a little more pressure. You remember the great feeling you had, for me at Crandon Park last year.”

That title at Key Biscayne remains the biggest of his career, and his win over Alexander Zverev in the final is one he will never forget. He was seeded 14th, and his run to the championship was unexpected. “You can’t replicate moments like this,” he said at his victory ceremony. “I’m toward the latter part of my career; this is the best moment of my career.”

Isner says that Miami trophy was exactly what he needed to boost his confidence.

“It meant everything because I wasn’t playing great coming into this tournament last year,” he said on Sunday. “Certainly, sometimes I doubted myself at the beginning of last year. I never thought I could win a tournament of this magnitude. I had gotten to the finals of (Masters 1000) events three prior times and lost. It’s no easy feat just getting to the finals of a tournament like this. To get back for a fourth time and win it was huge.”

The drama of the day began at 1:30 a.m., when 18-year-old Canadian Bianca Andreescu beat former world No. 4 Angelique Kerber for the second time in a week in a match that ended on a sour note.

Andreescu, who defeated Kerber in the final at Indian Wells, Calif., the previous weekend, won the third-round Miami Open match 6-4, 4-6, 6-1. The match started at 11:18 Saturday night and stretched into Sunday morning. During a very cold handshake, Kerber called Andreescu “Biggest drama queen ever,” referring to Andreescu’s medical timeout after seven games.

By lunchtime Sunday, Kerber had posted a conciliatory note on Twitter, congratulating Andreescu “for a great performance and well-deserved win.”

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Miami Herald sportswriter Michelle Kaufman has covered 14 Olympics, six World Cups, Wimbledon, U.S. Open, NCAA Basketball Tournaments, NBA Playoffs, and has been the University of Miami basketball beat writer for 20 years. She was born in Frederick, Md., and grew up in Miami.