Sometimes it’s the little victories that satisfy most. Especially when you’re a new dad.
That was the case for John Isner this week in Indian Wells. The altitudinous American will be the first to tell you that it’s his wife, Madison, who’s the true miracle worker when it comes to putting their six-month-old daughter down for a nap. But on a recent desert morning, baby Hunter was having none of it. No matter what Madison tried, it wasn’t going to happen.
That’s when John stepped in. Seven minutes later, Hunter was fast asleep.
It wasn’t the 33-year-old’s first success in Tennis Paradise. Isner downed Novak Djokovic 7-6(5)-in-the-third to reach the BNP Paribas Open final in 2012. (He would later fall to some guy named Federer in straight sets.) Despite an early flameout in the singles draw last year, Isner joined countryman Jack Sock for a title run in doubles. The North Carolinian isn’t necessarily known for his prowess on the doubles court, but Isner credits his title with Sock for turning his year around.
“Coming in to this tournament last year, I really had no results to lean on, to look back on,” said Isner, who has begrudgingly grown accustomed to slow starts to the year. “Sure enough, I lost my first singles match 7-5 in the third to Gael Monfils. That was a tough pill to swallow. But the doubles went my way playing with Jack. That really meant everything for me. I finally left a tournament feeling good about my game, even though it was doubles. It’s a huge event. Winning it was a good springboard for the rest of my 2018. It gave me a lot of confidence.”
The power-serving Isner carried that confidence into his next tournament, the Miami Open, where he captured the first ATP Masters 1000 singles title of his decade-long pro career. Along the way, he notched three Top-10 wins: Marin Cilic, Indian Wells titlist Juan Martin del Potro and Sascha Zverev.
“Matches are matches,” Isner reflected. “You can practice all you want. We practice a lot. But you can’t emulate match play out there. To be able to be the last team standing in doubles last year gave me a lot of confidence. I definitely parlayed that into some pretty good results in Miami.”
By the summer, Isner was zoning. Despite his infamous exploits on the lawns of the All England Club (think 70-68-in-the-fifth), he had never advanced beyond the third round at Wimbledon. In 2018, he would reach the semis.
The top-ranked American returns to the Indian Wells Tennis Garden the world No. 9. Opening against Australia’s Alexei Popyrin, the former Georgia Bulldog is as confident as ever.
“Last match I played here, I won,” he said. “Not many people can say that.”
“It could give me some confidence going in this year, but at the same time, everyone knows how tough this event is, how tough every player here is,” he continued. “I’ve been tripped up in my first match here, and I’ve also made it all the way to the final. There’s a big delta in the results that I know I am capable of. I’m capable of doing very good things, and I’m capable of bowing out early. Hopefully, I do much more of the good stuff this year.”
Isner has never been one to show stress. He betrays a certain 6-foot-10 lope; a Southern-born, what-me-worry, backwards ball-cap persona. But encircled by reporters this week in Stadium 1, he seemed more at peace than ever.
“Right now, I’m just in a very good spot,” he explained. “Most importantly, personally, which leads into the professional side of things. My wife and I having our first kid in 2018 was very special. On top of that, I played some very good tennis. It definitely puts things into perspective. Tennis is certainly not the most important thing in my life. My family is.”
“I’m just enjoying it,” he said of his new role as a father. “I’m still a kid at heart, but I have finally, I guess, grown up.”
Isner says more kids are in his future. But, for now, Hunter is keeping him busy enough. While he’s honing his naptime skills, he’s also been checking his daughter’s grip. Who knows. Maybe one day, like her father, she’ll wield a racquet for a living.
“Hopefully, she can have a pretty good serve when she grows up.”