John Isner celebrates after beating Felix Auger-Aliassime in the Miami Open semifinals. Sunday, however, he goes up against Roger Federer. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
John Isner celebrates after beating Felix Auger-Aliassime in the Miami Open semifinals. Sunday, however, he goes up against Roger Federer. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)|Associated Press
Tennis

Tennis: Abrams picks the Miami Open men’s singles final - Federer vs. Isner

Will our tennis handicapper sweep the semis and finals? We’ll find out at 1 pm Sunday.

Neal Abrams

Neal Abrams

Miami Open
Men’s Final

Roger Federer over John Isner
Let’s get this over with right now: Roger Federer is going to win this match and haul away not only $1.35 million, but also the champion’s trophy to his 101st ATP tournament. Federer has put together three-and-a-half weeks of superb play in the United States, and but for decisions to hit two consecutive silly and ill-timed drop-shots in the finals of Indian Wells against Dominic Thiem, he’d have collected his first Sunshine Double and the almost $3 million in prize money that would have gone along with those two titles.

Nonetheless, with the title here in Miami, and a runner-up finish in the California desert, Federer has assuredly reasserted himself as the Maestro who fans love to love, and probably the hottest player on the ATP Tour right now. Novak Djokovic, ranked No. 1, made early exits from both of these U.S. tournaments and appears to have taken a step back from the indomitable player he was as he rolled to his seventh Australian Open title back in January. Although he will retain his No. 1 ranking, The Joker is clearly not at the top of his game at the moment. Djokovic must be a little concerned after his relatively poor showing in these two Masters 1,000 tournaments.

Rafa Nadal, the No. 2 player in the world, withdrew from a semifinal contest at Indian Wells with a bad knee, which evidently forced him to also withdraw from the Miami Open, making the way for Sascha Zverev to be the 2-seed here. That withdrawal, plus the resultant machinations to the draw that it required to reflect the 2-seed’s absence, opened up a path which allowed both Canadian teenage sensations, Felix Auger-Alliasime and Denis Shapovalov, to storm into the semi-finals. The Canadians have positioned themselves to be seeded at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon as we close the door on 2019’s first quarter and enter the Spring European clay court season.

But another story quietly taking place these last eleven days has been the slow, steady march towards excellence that John Isner is taking. Now 29-years-old, Isner is the 9th ranked player in the world according to the ATP. After winning this title last year, Isner entered this tournament, according to his own comments, with no thought whatsoever of repeating as champion. Boy, if there was ever anyone who kept expectations to a minimum, this was the guy, and this was where he did it. (Maybe our president could learn a lesson or two about humility from the modest Isner.)

In watching him win his eighth and ninth tiebreakers (out of ten sets played) in his semi-final win over FA2, it was instructive to realize that at FA2’s age of 18, Isner was playing No. 3 on the University of Georgia’s men’s tennis team, and thinking about what career path he’d follow after graduation. Isner’s rise has been slow but steady on the ATP Tour, just like it was in college when, as a senior, finally playing No. 1 for Georgia, he got to the finals of the NCAA singles championships but dropped the title match to the University of Virginia’s Somdev Devvarman -- a current journeyman pro from India. Isner was then just a 6’9” basher who could serve well. But he’s not that guy anymore. Now, he’s coming awfully close to reaching the mountaintop.

Even so, even after not dropping a set in Miami, after winning four out of his five matches here 7-6, 7-6 (and the other one 7-5, 7-6), after holding serve 90% of the time in his career, after winning 70% of his second serve points, and after holding serve a historic and almost unbelievable 81 (EIGHTY-ONE!!) consecutive times in one match at Wimbledon (in 2010, when Isner topped Frenchman Nicolas Mahut 70-68 in the fifth!), Isner will walk away from Miami as the runner-up.

Still, the ex-Georgia Bulldog beat everyone put in front of him without so much as dropping a single set, and should be more than pleased when he receives his runners-up check for $686,000 and stands next to The Fed as they receive their spoils in the after-match ceremony. Because the American serves so well, he stands to win his share of games, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we saw two, or even three tiebreakers here in the finals. But anyone going against the Swiss Master enters Dr. Federer’s House of Horrors this weekend in Miami. The Fed spanked Shapovalov in straight sets in Friday night’s semis, seemingly giving the youngster a lesson in excellence. Federer is on a roll, playing insanely great for a 37-year-old, and appears on a Mission from God. Measure his head, for Federer will wear the Pope’s hat as Pope Roger the First after Sunday’s final.

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