MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — At 18, Felix Auger-Aliassime is already quite a tennis package: explosive from the baseline, comfortable at the net and smooth on the move as well as in the interview room, where he can reflect in French or English.
On Friday, in the biggest match of his career, the Canadian qualifier acted his age only when it came time to close out a set.
His semifinal opponent at the Miami Open was the defending champion John Isner, 15 years his senior and long one of the game’s supreme servers. But it was Auger-Aliassime’s own serve that proved the insurmountable obstacle to a breakthrough.
Up by 5-4 and serving for the first set, Auger-Aliassime produced his first three double faults of the match and lost his edge. He went on to lose the set in a tiebreaker.
“For sure, nerves,” Auger-Aliassime said. “It was like I caught a virus or something.”
Up by 5-3 and serving for the second set, he played better but fared no better, double faulting and knocking a midcourt forehand swing volley into the tape on break point.
Final score: 7-6 (3) 7-6 (4) in favor of Isner, for whom tiebreakers are as natural a habitat as a swamp is to a gator.
Isner has played 49 sets this year. More than half (26) have ended in tiebreakers, a reflection of his phenomenal serve and his limitations as a returner, which make it difficult to break the opposition.
Though Isner had a losing record in 2019 tiebreakers before this tournament, he has gone 9-0 in the Miami Open.
“I’m just finding myself pretty calm in those situations; maybe it’s a little bit mental,” Isner said. “I’m just definitely playing my best tennis when I’ve been in that situation this week. There is no doubt.”
Isner’s career record in tiebreakers is now 411-260.
“First of all, it’s the familiarity,” said Justin Gimelstob, who has remained a coaching consultant to Isner while facing a charge of felony battery in Southern California. “He just has a lot more experience, has played a lot more tiebreakers, so it’s a different dynamic and he benefits from that. Tiebreakers put players under a different type of pressure, and John just has so many reps in that situation, and you combine that with what I believe is the best serve in the history of the sport, it is just I think a huge advantage for John over all.”
Isner’s defeat of Auger-Aliassime put him one victory from successfully defending the most significant title of his career. He won this Masters 1000 tournament last season, when it was played about 20 miles south of Miami Gardens, on the upscale island of Key Biscayne and with a permanent main stadium.
This year, the tournament moved to the grounds of Hard Rock Stadium, home of the Miami Dolphins, where a temporary tennis stadium has been built inside.
It all feels much more like a novel experience than a replay of 2018.
“A completely different feel than last year, obviously,” Isner said.
There are clear benefits to the shift in site: more spacious and luxurious facilities for fans and players; a less congested commute; a fine vibe on the outside courts despite complaints about insufficient seating. Above all, there is the fact that this event, traditionally one of the most prestigious outside the four Grand Slam events, has remained in the United States and in the tennis hotbed of South Florida rather than being moved outside the country, which has been the case for other United States-based tournaments in the past 20 years.
But the downside for now is that the main stadium often has a low-energy atmosphere, and though ticket sales have been brisk, fewer than half of the seats were occupied when Isner and Auger-Aliassime began play shortly after 1 p.m.
In Sunday’s final, Isner will face the winner of Friday’s second semifinal, between Roger Federer and another Canadian teenager, the flashy left-hander Denis Shapovalov.
The ninth-ranked Isner has preserved his place in the world’s top 10 with this deep run. He also is undeniably back on a roll after a slow start to 2019.
In January, he was beaten in the opening round of the Australian Open, the year’s first Grand Slam tournament, by Reilly Opelka, the young American player who most resembles the 6-foot-10 Isner. Opelka, 21, is 6-11 with a devastating serve.
Isner also lost to Opelka in the semifinals of the New York Open in February and was beaten by Karen Khachanov, a huge-hitting 22-year-old Russian, in the round of 16 of the BNP Paribas Open early this month.
But age and experience prevailed on Friday, and while the deeply promising Auger-Aliassime headed back to the tournament’s practice courts alone to work on his serve, Isner was preparing to put his to work on Sunday.
“I said in press before the tournament that chances are I’m not going to defend it, because I have only won one of these in my whole career, and I have probably played a hundred of them,” he said of Masters 1000 events. “But now I’m one match away, so hopefully I can eat those words.”