John Isner advanced to his 31st ATP Tour final on Saturday at the Dallas Open, but this one is extra special. With family and friends in the stands, the 37-year-old moved within one victory of the title at the ATP 250 event in his home city.
The fifth seed won an all-American matchup against J.J. Wolf 3-6, 7-5, 7-6(4), overcoming a slow start with a dominant serving performance that improved throughout the two-and-a-half-hour contest.
"I saved a lot of break points with unreturnable serves. Without that I would have been dusted off the court 6-3, 6-4," Isner said in his on-court interview. "So I'm of course very fortunate to have that weapon in my pocket, and I needed every bit of it today.
"It was an absolute battle, so I'm pretty tired. But I'm absolutely ecstatic to be in the final tomorrow here in Dallas."
After facing eight break points in his first eight service games, Isner found form on his delivery to put pressure on his 24-year-old opponent. The 16-time tour-level titlist claimed his lone break point of the match to snatch the second set, then raced out to a 4/0 lead in the final-set tie-break before closing out victory with a delicate drop-volley winner.
Much of Isner's long run of success on the ATP Tour can be credited to his ability on serve and in tie-breaks, and he delivered on both fronts against Wolf. He fired 31 aces in the contest — extending his record total to 14,133 — and won his 501st tie-break tie-break to seal the victory. In Friday's quarter-finals, Isner became the first man to win 500 tie-breaks in the Open Era.
One thing Isner does not have on his side is youth. One day after beating a semi-final opponent 13 years his junior, he will take on an even younger opponent in 23-year-old Wu Yibing for the title. Wu defeated top-seeded American Taylor Fritz 6-7(3), 7-5, 6-4 to become the first Chinese man to reach an ATP Tour final in the Open Era.
After playing just two matches in January, going 0-2 Down Under, Isner has won four matches in five days to reach the Dallas final. How is his body holding up?
"Truthfully, it feels terrible right now," he said with a laugh. "I'm 38 in April. It's not getting any easier. I started off a little slow, a little sluggish, but in the third set I actually felt the best I felt the whole match. I had a lot of adrenaline there at the end and I was able to hold my nerve and win.
"Right now the name of the game is recovery. I'll get back in the training room and try to get this big body ready for tomorrow."