By the time Isner arrived at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, he thought he was ready to win. Instead, he fell to Gaël Monfils, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (3), 7-5, in his first match. Isner even held a match point with Monfils serving at 4-5 in the third set.
Yet again, he had some time off to wonder what had gone wrong. But Isner was also entered in the doubles event with his fellow American Jack Sock, giving him a reason to stick around and someone to practice with and to hang around with at day’s end. Isner and Sock went on to capture the title, beating Bob and Mike Bryan in the final.
“We just kept it loose and I was able to stay in match mode, even though it was doubles,” Isner said. “It helped so much to win the tournament. I was able to get that winning feeling back.”
When Isner arrived at the Miami Open two weeks ago, he was feeling physically fortified, but still a little shaken mentally and emotionally. He and David Macpherson, his day-to-day coach, dissected past matches during nightly dinners, and Isner confessed to having some inner demons that were preventing him from closing out contests.
“People think when you’re struggling and not winning matches it’s because you’re not working hard,” said Isner, who said that he gained a new perspective on his tennis, and his life, when he married his longtime girlfriend, Madison McKinley, last December. “That’s the biggest misnomer in tennis. All of us work hard. I know I do. But I also needed to put in some mental work with my coaches. I had to be a little bit vulnerable in hashing out what I’m feeling in the big moments and what was preventing me from playing my best in those moments. I had to get it out of my system.”
The result was a more relaxed and free-flowing Isner, a player who cracked groundstrokes with new aplomb and roared through the Miami Open draw, upsetting second-seeded Marin Cilic, fifth-seeded Juan Martín del Potro and fourth-seeded Alexander Zverev to capture the first Masters 1000 title of his career.
Two weeks shy of his 33rd birthday, Isner is the oldest first-time Masters 1000 champion. The victory also catapulted him to a career-high ranking of No. 9 and gave him the largest payday, at $1,454,982.
This weekend, Isner will lead the United States in the Davis Cup quarterfinals against Belgium in Nashville. A win would put the team into the semifinals in September against either Croatia or Kazakhstan.
The last time the Americans reached the semifinals was in 2012, when they lost to Spain. It has been 11 years since the United States, behind Andy Roddick, James Blake and the Bryan brothers, won its last Davis Cup.
Though Belgium was runner-up last year, the team is without David Goffin, the No. 10-ranked men’s player in the world, and Steve Darcis, who are injured. In their place are No. 110 Ruben Bemelmans and No. 319 Joris De Loore. The two other team members, Sander Gillé and Joran Vliegen, are not ranked within the world’s top 1,000 singles players.
The American squad has five players in the top 55, with Isner, Sock, Harrison, Sam Querrey and Steve Johnson.
Jim Courier, the U.S. Davis Cup captain, plans to play Isner and Querrey, his two highest-ranked players, in singles, and then make a doubles decision among any number of combinations at the last minute. Courier was particularly encouraged by what he saw from Isner in Miami.
“I was equally impressed by the velocity on his backhand and the quality of his forehand return,” said Courier, who is in his eighth year as the American captain. “In the past, he used to hang his head when things weren’t going right. He just needed to see some positives and the benefits of his hard work.”
Courier and Isner think this is a group that can end the American Davis Cup drought. The players are close friends — practicing, playing doubles, even trash-talking through spirited poker games together.
Gimelstob said that sense of camaraderie and teamwork, as well as managing expectations, might have helped propel Isner to a new height in singles.
“John knows that it’s not supposed to be easy and you have to expect adversity,” he said. “Tennis is not like team sports where you can pass the ball. In an individual sport, you have to be the center, the point guard, the forward and the shooting guard, all in one. He’s always been second-guessed throughout his career as to whether he can be more than just a server. Now he knows he can be.”