Federer vs. Isner Preview: Defending Champ Tries to Fend Off the Greatest

FEDERER VS. ISNER PREVIEW: DEFENDING CHAMP TRIES TO FEND OFF THE GREATEST

By Tucker Verdi

Miami Gardens, FL — John Isner did not think he would be here again. He figured that with one Masters 1000 title in a career spanning over 10 years that it probably wouldn’t happen for a second time so soon after the first — let alone at the same tournament.

“Chances are I’m not going to defend it,” Isner said of his expectations in the run-up to the 2019 Miami Open presented by Itaú. “I have only won one [Masters 1000 title] in my whole career and I have probably played a hundred of them… you just crunch those numbers.”

On Sunday, Isner will attempt to defy the odds by playing in his second consecutive Miami Open final. In 2018, he made a miraculous run in Miami to the biggest win of his career that led to a year of personal bests for the 33-year-old.

“I believe personally that every tournament I enter I can win,” Isner clarified. “So I’m not surprised that I’m sitting here back in the finals again, but I was just going on pure math.”

“But now I’m only one match away so hopefully I can eat those words. I have been doing it so far.”

Indeed, the big man has been playing spectacularly over the fortnight — he has not dropped a set in five matches played thus far and has fired off 98 aces. The American No. 1 has thrived in high-pressure situations, winning 9 of 10 sets played in tiebreaks. That reverses his dismal tiebreak record of 7-10 coming into Miami.

Isner reached the final by way of wins over qualifier Lorenzo Sonego, Albert Ramos Viñolas, No. 19 seed Kyle Edmund, No. 22 seed Roberto Bautista Agut, and a surprise semifinal opponent in 18-year-old qualifier Felix Auger-Aliassime.

Isner will undoubtedly have to elevate his game considering that, while he is surprised to have reached another Masters 1000 final so quickly, his opponent has been in more of them than anyone in history.

Roger Federer will be across the net from Isner Sunday afternoon playing in his record 50th Masters 1000 final and fifth at the Miami Open. A champion in Miami three times, Federer is relishing the prospect of playing the power-serving Isner.

“I enjoy the challenge,” the former World No. 1 said after his semifinal win. “What I like about it is just to see the sheer power and accuracy that big guys have on their serve, you know.”

The 20-time major champion will be staring down Isner’s serve that can reach speeds of 140+ miles per hour. But Federer holds a 6-2 record in head-to-head matches over Isner, their most recent bout coming at the Laver Cup, where Federer prevailed in a third set tiebreak.

“Number one, you want to connect,” Federer said of his game plan against the big serves of Isner. “Secondly, you want to get in a neutral position, which is difficult because you know he’s looking for his forehand… to take charge of the point.”

The forehand of Isner — often called a “fearhand” — is just as dangerous as his serve. The key will be to get the just under 6-foot-11 player on the run, as his movement from line to line is one of the few weaknesses in his game.

“Maybe take his legs out,” Federer explained. “Because what happens sometimes on your own service games is you don't go so big right away, because you have a bit of time to maybe outmaneuver him, as well, so all of a sudden you extend the rallies on your own service games.”

Extending and winning rallies has been an advantage Federer has used to reach this record-breaking final. While he was tested in his opening round match by qualifier Radu Albot, who stole a set from the No. 4 seed, Federer has cruised since then. He did not drop a set the rest of the way, beating Filip Krajinovic, No. 13 seed Daniil Medvedev, No. 6 seed Kevin Anderson, and No. 20 seed Denis Shapovalov in straights.

Despite the odds being against him repeating as champion, Isner is excited for the matchup with Federer.

“Certainly playing Roger [will] be a very big moment,” Isner told the media. “Any time you play against him… in a big stage, a tournament like this, [is] amazing.”