That winning feeling

That winning feeling

John Isner had time to kill. After a first-round loss to Ryan Harrison in Acapulco, Mexico, in late February, Isner was hanging his head. He had lost his first match in four of the five tour events he had entered in 2018, even falling in the first round at the Australian Open to 78th-ranked Matthew Ebden.

"I was losing so early in events, and when that happens your confidence gets shaken," said Isner, 32, who had won 12 ATP tournaments in his career but had never advanced beyond the quarterfinals at a major. "I didn't have the feeling of making it deep into a tournament, and when you lose early, you have five, six, seven days to think about it."

He did not need to arrive in Indian Wells, California, for his next tournament until the following week, so Isner made a three-day stop in Los Angeles to work with Justin Gimelstob, one of his three coaches. Gimelstob, a former tour player who also works as a television commentator, had accompanied Isner for three years until family issues forced him to curtail his travel.

"I have tremendous belief in him, I always have," he said. "People always oversimplify John because they think he's all serve, and he should be able to win that way."

Isner and Gimelstob did not make any major changes in those three days. Instead, they focused on adjusting small things like Isner's footwork on the forehand, the position of his outside leg on the backhand return, and his racquet position on the volley. They even tweaked the toss on his serve, even though the 6-foot-10 Isner has hit a staggering 8,800 aces in his 11-year career.

By the time Isner arrived at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, he thought he was ready to win. Instead, he fell to Gal 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 time off to wonder what had gone wrong. But he was also 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. They beat 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, in December.

Biggest misnomer

"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 Martn 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 almost $1.5 million.

Isner is part of the United States Davis Cup team, fighting Belgium in the quarters. 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. The American squad has five players in the top 55, with Isner, Sock, Harrison, Sam Querrey and Steve Johnson.

Jim Courier, the US Davis Cup captain, 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 - practising, 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 centre, 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."

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