John Isner was coming out of spin class back home in North Carolina last week when he got the call informing him that he had qualified for the ATP Finals for the first time in his career, following the withdrawal of Rafael Nadal.
The 33-year-old new dad flew to the United States after the Paris Masters to enjoy some home comforts like hanging out with his two-month-old daughter Hunter and lying on his couch watching football.
He got on a plane soon after, accompanied by his wife and daughter, and came to London to make his debut at the O2 Arena. Isner kicks off his campaign against Novak Djokovic on Monday night (20:00 London time, midnight Dubai time), looking to improve on his 2-8 head-to-head record against the Serbian world No. 1.
“I think it will be really easy for me,” Isner said sarcastically when asked about his clash with Djokovic. “I’m up against, for sure he’s the No. 1 player in the world, he’s won this event five times if I’m not mistaken, he’s the player to beat this week for sure.
“It’s a good spot for me because I don’t have much to lose, I’m definitely the underdog. So I’m going to go out there and just try to play my best, just try to play loose and free and see what happens. I’ve played him I don’t know how many times, seems like eight or nine times, I’ve beaten him a couple, but he’s beaten me more times than not. So it’s going to e a very, very tough match for myself. But I’m looking forward to it. The atmosphere is going to be great, and it’s going to be a good challenge.”
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The oldest first-time qualifier since 1972, Isner enjoyed a career-best season this year, winning his maiden Masters 1000 title in Miami, and reaching his first Grand Slam semi-final at Wimbledon.
“It means a lot to be here. I’ve certainly been pretty close throughout my career to make it to this event, it just hasn’t quite happened. I also realise that this year I’m pretty fortunate to be here as well. That being said, I had a very good year, and I put myself in the position to make this event, and it happened. For me to do this at 33, to be competing in my first Nitto ATP Finals is very satisfying for me personally,” said the 10th-ranked Isner.
The day session on Monday will see 21-year-old German Alexander Zverev take on Croatian four-time qualifier Marin Cilic. Zverev is making his second straight appearance at the O2, and leads the tour with 54 victories posted in 2018, including three titles in Madrid, Washington and Munich.
Zverev, in London with his coach of three months Ivan Lendl, will be looking to erase the memories from his third round robin match here last year, where he squandered a lead in the final set against Jack Sock to miss out on a spot in the semi-finals.
“I lost the match in a not so good way, so I hope history doesn’t repeat itself. Obviously another year on tour for me, another year of experience, hopefully it’s going to be different this year. But obviously very tough matches, great players, big guys, big serves, and Novak as well, so I’m just looking forward to playing good tennis here,” said Zverev ahead of his opener.
For the first time since 2004, four players outside the ‘Big Four’ – Isner, Zverev, Juan Martin del Potro and Karen Khachanov – have won Masters 1000 titles in the same season. For some, it may seem like a sign that we might get a new Grand Slam champion next season, but Isner doesn’t see it that way.
“No. I won one, Sascha won two the year before, so he’s not a newcomer in that winners circle. It was Del Potro’s first Masters title but we all know how good he is, he’s got a Grand Slam. Karen last week played incredibly well, and he still had to beat Djokovic in the final, it’s not like he beat someone lower-ranked in the final. He beat the No. 1 player in the world. I still think the old guard with Novak, Rafa, Roger [Federer] and when Andy [Murray] gets back healthy, they won’t be giving up those Masters titles too easily,” said the American.
Zverev, who has been described as the future of tennis for some time now but has reached just one Grand Slam quarter-final so far in his young career, admits it’s about time the up-and-comers gave the big guns a run for their money.
“For sure we have to step it up, for sure we have to improve, but that’s normal, everybody has to improve,” said Zverev. “Novak this year, what he’s done in the second half of the year is unbelievable. We do see that. We know we have to improve our games, nothing changes.
“So someday hopefully we will kind of surpass them and take over, even though it would be great for tennis if Roger and Rafa and Novak play forever, but you’ve got to ask them if they actually want to.
“There have always been discussions about the next generation, it was also the case 20, 30 years ago, it was always like what happens after McEnroe, Borg retire? What happens after Sampras and Agassi retire? So there’s always been new guys that excite tennis, there’s always been new guys that kind of take tennis over. It’s always been the case and I hope that it will happen naturally here as well.”
Federer is making a record 16th appearance at the ATP Finals this week, where the world No. 3 is targeting the 100th title of his career. At 37, the Swiss continues to defy all odds, which has left Zverev in awe of his longevity.
“I don’t know what I’ll be doing when I’m 37. I hope I’ll still be playing tennis, but nobody’s Roger, so… we’ll see how it goes. Obviously it’s a great achievement that in itself, and he’s won this tournament plenty of times, we know his history, he’s won so many other titles. That’s why he’s considered the greatest player of all-time. What’s he’s doing at 37 years old is something we’ve never seen before and I’m not sure, we might not ever see it again, so let’s just appreciate that and enjoy what he’s doing right now,” said Zverev.
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