Wimbledon 2022: Andy Murray tries everything but can’t get past the goofy Gulliver

It had all the makings of another primetime thriller, or maybe a late-night horror classic.

After all, Andy Murray’s rival across the net was John Isner who’ll never be forgotten as the player to emerge slightly less zombie-like than the other guy after a 70-68 final-set in tennis’ longest-ever match.

But the thing about zombies is they keep coming back for more. So does this giant American, 6ft 10ins of him, who we should absolutely emphasise is not a member of the undead. Eight times before Isner had taken on Murray and eight times he’d lost. Until last night.

Murray tried everything he knew but couldn’t break the self-confessed goofy Gulliver from Greensboro, North Carolina. Not his serve - this was only the third time in 17 years of Slam tennis that the great Scot had drawn such a blank - nor when attempting to pass Isner’s enormous wingspan.

Andy Murray takes his leave of Centre Court after his second-round defeat

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It was another raucous night on Centre Court, the crowd urging on their hero after the disappointment of Emma Raducanu’s exit, first under a chilly sky and then the roof which, surprisingly, Isner did not reach up an arm and pull shut himself.

Isner for his part smashed 36 aces past Murray but there was so much more to his game than power-play and his touch around the net for such a big man was featherlight.

After his 6-4, 7-6 (7-4), 6-7 (3-7), 6-4 triumph he was generous in his praise of Dunblane’s finest. “It’s no secret that I’m most definitely not a better tennis player than Andy Murray,” he said. “I may just have been a little bit better than him in this match.

“He’s one of our greatest players ever and a massive inspiration to each and every one of us in the locker-room. We’re so lucky to have him around.”

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John Isner on his way to his best-ever Wimbledon victory

It’s not often Murray is dwarfed but standing alongside Isner at the coin-toss he looked like he was waiting for kiddies club coaching. Serving first Murray hit 124mph but when it was Isner’s turn 132mph went up. Next game Isner - who’s fastest stands at 157mph - broke Murray; the drop-shot wasn’t quite working yet. But the crosscourt backhand drive was, although Isner responded with a serving blitzkrieg.

Looking forward to this contest, Isner had blundered by called Murray one of “England’s best-ever”. Presumably it was mere coincidence that 24 hours later Nicola Sturgeon announced a date for another independence referendum but this would be the No20 seed’s only error.

How did Murray combat the monster serve before? Well, on the evidence of the latest skirmish pure guesswork played a part. Like the goalie in a penalty shootout he stuck out a hand and hoped. Isner’s shorts looked like they could have been worn by Jimmy Johnstone and Willie Henderson as long breeks, but his big shot just kept getting bigger.

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That bombastic match which is Isner’s claim to fame around these parts is commemorated with a plaque. The zombie movie 28 Days was not inspired by it - overcoming Nicolas Mahut actually took three - but references to the undead, decomposed legs, and the fear that “Oh God, it’s happening again” - proved irresistible for those whose duty it was to observe.

If Isner’s presence last night caused some to shudder - fearing another slugathon - then the contest certainly didn’t turn out like that. There was enormously subtlety on show from him and always the chance of a quirky interlude featuring another of Murray’s underarm serves. Without it he was still producing some gems. A scorching volley played blind on the turn was the pick.

But, while we kind of knew Isner would hit the ball harder, the American’s drop shots were working better as well. First set to him in 40 pulverising minutes.

Murray was trying to make Isner move around and although just two strides can take the latter some distance the two-times champ was going to have to sort out his touch around the net. Chances were being missed and Isner wasn’t giving up many.

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The booming was relentless. Murray would be reduced to launching despairful lobbed returns which only invited Isner to smash. His first double fault on serve midway through the second set offered Murray some hope, quickly dashed.

Isner could have asked: “Who are you calling boring?” But when he fired that bazooka he wasn’t missing. Then half a chance for Murray. “Brilliant, ma son!” roared a Scottish voice. Isner shut Murray down but at least the drop shot seemed to be working again.

Isner’s wasn’t faltering. Twice in succession Murray charged in vain, almost keeping running right up to his box, where he presumably would have asked coach Ival Lendl: “What the hell am I supposed to do?” Especially after Isner grabbed the second set on a tiebreak.

In the third, Murray’s girning increased as glimmers of opportunity diminished. One sizzling Isner return caused him to rip off his hat. But a service game which could have been lost was won, provoking fistpumps and bellows. Isner, impassive and ignoring of the din, simply bashed down yet more aces.

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Isner had given up just two break chances; neither taken. The one conceded by Murray had been pounced upon. Isner served only his second double fault but again, nothing doing. Then in the breaker, for hanging in there, for keeping believing, for being Andy Murray, the glimmers suddenly glowed for him and he snatched the set.

Would Isner wobble? The board reading 15-30 on his serve was still a rarity; ditto a dispatch which skewed into the other court. Murray kept chipping away but then at 30-all on his serve he let in Isner for only the second chance of a break. That was saved but an astonishing miss on the backhand, standing at the net, was fatal.

Everyone always asked about the zombie match, said Isner - for him a “nightmare”. Now he had a better Wimbledon memory, the best.

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