Isner Ends Felix's Dream Run, Closes In On Title Defence
John Isner spoke of #NextGenATP Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime’s bright future ahead of their Miami Open presented by Itau semi-final on Friday afternoon. But Isner wouldn’t let the Canadian’s growing stardom stop his dream of a title defence, halting Felix’s impressive run with a hard-earned 7-6(3), 7-6(4) victory, extending his tie-break record in the tournament to 9-0 to reach the championship match.
Last year in Miami, at Crandon Park, Isner became the oldest first-time ATP Masters 1000 champion. And while the tournament moved to a new venue, at Hard Rock Stadium, the 2018 Nitto ATP Finals qualifier has shown equally good tennis, advancing to the final — against three-time champion Roger Federer — without dropping a set.
"I said in press before the tournament that chances are I'm not going to defend it, because I have only won one of these in my whole career," Isner said. "But now I'm one match away, so hopefully I can eat those words. I have been doing it so far."
The key to the match was Auger-Aliassime's inability to close out either set on his serve. Those moments were perhaps the only time this tournament that Felix appeared his age, 18, with double faults proving costly in the crucial moments. And once the defending champion battled to tie-breaks, momentum was on his side, and he rode those mini-waves to more tie-break success. Entering the tournament, he was just 7-10 in tour-level tie-breaks this year.
"For sure [it was] nerves. It's like I caught a virus or something. I don't know. I couldn't put a second serve anymore," Auger-Aliassime said. "Even the first serve, if you put it in, you don't have to hit the second serve. Yeah, that's just very tough to swallow."
Isner also will retain his spot inside the Top 10 of the ATP Rankings thanks to his efforts. The American earned 1,000 points with his title last year, so he needed to make at least the final to guarantee that he would not drop from the elite group. The World No. 9 will move up one spot to No. 8 if he captures his second Masters 1000 trophy.
"I just looked at it like that: there is no pressure, really. It's just another tournament," Isner said. "Just because I did well in it last year, if this was eight years ago, I might have felt that pressure. But now, I don't ever think about defending points or anything like that... I used to worry about that, but I don't anymore."
Auger-Aliassime, the first qualifier to reach the Miami semi-finals since Guillermo Canas in 2007, remained calm and focused through the match’s first nine games, playing aggressive-but-controlled tennis from the baseline to dominate early action, breaking for 4-3. But Felix hit his first three double faults of the match — all into the net — as he tried to close out the opener, allowing Isner back into the set.
While Isner began to put many more returns into play towards the end of the first set and at the beginning of the second, Auger-Aliassime was still able to earn the advantage. The teen camped on a backhand return at 3-2 in the Ad court, elicitng a forehand shank from the American to earn a break for 4-2. But serving for the set at 5-3, a double fault long gave Isner two opportunities to get back on serve, and after dismissing the first chance, Auger-Aliassime hit a swinging volley into the net to allow the 6'10" right-hander back on serve.
Isner, who had only been broken twice in 48 service games in the tournament before this semi-final, was broken twice by the young Canadian. But he added 21 aces to his tournament-leading tally of 98 to advance after one hour and 53 minutes.
"Today was a little bit of a different way of getting there with my opponent serving for each set," Isner said. "But once I got each set back on serve today, I felt very confident that if it continued on into a tie-break, that I would have a chance to win."
Auger-Aliassime was trying to become the youngest Masters 1000 finalist since Michael Chang at Toronto in 1990. The teenager was already the youngest semi-finalist in Miami tournament history. Felix will become the first player born in the 2000s to crack the Top 50 of the ATP Rankings on Monday, when he moves to a career-high of around No. 33.
"I just felt like, I don't know, the nerves got to me a little," Auger-Aliassime said. "I wasn't able to do like all the other matches and just focus on what I had to do, and it really got to me too hard."
Did You Know?
- Twelve of Isner's 14 ATP Tour titles have come in the United States. The American lifted his other two trophies in Auckland.
- Felix entered this match 5-0 against opposition inside the Top 20.