John Isner has rewritten Wimbledon history. Again. The huge American has now been a part of the two longest matches ever played at the All England Club.
But after six hours and 35 minutes of physical graft, 99 games of mental anguish, it was not Isner who was through to his first Wimbledon final but Kevin Anderson – or what was left of him.
The first South African in 97 years to reach a final in SW19, Anderson fell over the finish line 7-6, 6-7, 6-7, 6-4, 26-24 in the semi-final yesterday. He had been physically fitter, mentally more resilient for five mind-bending sets but now he was utterly spent.
“I don’t really know what to say right now. Just playing like that, in those sort of conditions, it’s really tough on both of us. At the end you feel like this is a draw between the two of us but somebody has to win.
“John’s such a great guy – I really feel for him because if I’d been on the opposite side, I don’t know how you can take that: playing for so long and coming out short. I apologise if I’m not more excited just now. I have so many mixed emotions getting through something like that.”
Anderson, who sits on the players’ council at the ATP tour, also wanted yesterday’s marathon to be the last of its kind and for the grand slam events to introduce a fifth-set tiebreak. At the moment, only the US Open uses that truncated format. “I really hope this is a sign for grand slams to change this format for five sets,” he said. “For us to be out there for this length of time – it’s not just now, it’s coming back and trying to compete again. It’s happened to John before. I really hope we can look at this and address this.”
Between them, Anderson and Isner hit a total of 102 aces, 264 unreturned serves, 247 winners and 83 unforced errors. It was the longest match ever on Centre Court (Charlie Pasarell and Pancho Gonzalez had a relatively swift five-setter in 1969 that lasted a mere five hours and 12 minutes) – there seemed to be no end to it.
Isner had said earlier in the tournament that he was desperate not to be remembered for his three-day, 11 hour, five minute first round marathon against Nicolas Mahut back in 2010. He won that one 70-68 in the fifth set but lost in the next round.
To reach his first grand slam final was the way to consign that 2010 epic to history and, as he won the third set tiebreak for a two set to one lead with nearly three hours on the clock, it looked as if his wish was about to be granted. He didn’t know that he had not yet reached the halfway mark.
At no stage did there ever seem to be a clear favourite. There were bound to be ups and down over the six hours and more but never did one man take charge of the court. In its final stages, Isner looked the more weary but was still able to pound down serves at 130mph and more. Anderson, at times, looked the more nervy but still managed to leather in some scorching returns. Over the course of the first three hours, the only moments of real drama came in the third game of the opening set. For 13 minutes, Isner pushed and pushed at the door, trying to break down the Anderson serve. He had three break points but all to no avail: Anderson held firm and settled in for the long haul.
Other players walk on court with a bag full of rackets and clean shirts. These two had come prepared with an entrenching tool and a tent. They both have impregnable serves, Isner has the better volley, Anderson is better off the ground. Anderson moves better, Isner has more power. There was not a fag paper between them.
Quite how Anderson was going to make any headway was unclear. Isner had dropped his serve once during the course of the tournament and well into the third set, he had not been broken for 110 games. And then the unthinkable happened: Anderson broke serve. He took a 5-3 lead. There was a chance that this match may end sometime this week. So Isner broke straight back.
On they lumbered to yet another tiebreak. Isner took that and was 2-1 up. Could the end be in sight? Not a chance.
Anderson took the fourth set, Isner served first in the fifth. That left the South African, who had looked so edgy earlier on, serving to stay in the match 20 times in the decider, 20 times that he had to take his courage in both hands and hang on.
But when, at 24-24, he fell mid-rally, leapt up and hit a forehand left-handed to go on and win the point, one that gave him three more break points (which were as good as match points by this stage), the whole arena sensed that this was to be Anderson’s day. Sadly, tomorrow will probably belong to the finalist who did not play a six hour and 35 minutes semi-final.