Tennis, like baseball, can go extra innings… and that’s what happened on Wimbledon’s Centre Court Friday. Two giants — 6-10 John Isner and 6-8 Kevin Anderson — fought fiercely for the fleeting few points that would send one man over the finish line and propel him to the men’s singles final.
The winner — Kevin Anderson — busted through after six hours and 35 minutes, 7-6(6), 6-7(5), 6-7(9), 6-2, 26-24. It was the longest semifinal in the history of The Wimbledon Championships.
Whether this match was novelty or history will be for enthusiasts to decide. Fans inside the stadium seemed to rev up their support late in the last set. Perhaps they wanted the match to end. Perhaps they sensed the sincere depth of emotion, athleticism and perseverance Isner and Anderson displayed. Either way, Anderson, the eighth seed, will play his first Wimbledon final on Sunday and his second major final overall. Last September he lost to Rafael Nadal at the U.S. Open. Ironically, Anderson could face the Spaniard again. Rafa will have to come back from a two-sets-to-one deficit against Novak Djokovic in a match suspended by Wimbledon Village’s curfew.
The length of Friday’s match evoked memories of the longest match in tennis history. It was a three-day extravaganza Isner played against Nicolas Mahut in 2010 — also at Wimbledon — which ended in the fifth set, 70-68, after 11 hours and five minutes. News of that match played out across the planet for a week, keeping tennis at the forefront of global sport. However, Isner lost in the next round, his feet torn apart by the battle. He did not recover for months.
“I hope this is a sign for Grand Slams to change,” Anderson told the BBC when asked how he would recover in time for Sunday’s final. “It’s happened to John before. I really hope we can look at it and address it. Just playing in those conditions is tough on both of us. I really feel for him; he’s a great guy.”
“I felt okay out there; now I feel horrible,” Isner said, in his post-match interview. “Those guys [Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal] got out there at, what, 8:15? I don’t even know if they’ll finish. Isn’t there some sort of curfew? It has to change.”
“So many mixed emotions getting through something like that,” Anderson said, adding, “He’s pushed me throughout my career. I’ve pushed myself harder because the highs he’s had.”
No place was Anderson pushed more than in the fifth set, which went two hours and 55 minutes. He seemed to hold serve more easily than Isner, who was wincing as he moved from point to point. At 24-24 and 0-15 on Isner’s serve, Anderson fell in the backcourt and recovered to return one shot using his left hand. It landed in and earned Anderson the point a few shots later for 0-30. Isner tried to hold off the inevitable, getting close at 15-40, but Anderson broke and the rest was history.
“He won twenty more points than John in that fifth set,” Darren Cahill said, calling the match for ESPN.
Had Anderson failed to covert there, who knows when the match would have ended?
Had he lost the match, he would have rued the chances that came and went.
Anderson blew a the first one as he tried to serve out the third set and go up two sets to one. Isner had handed him a break on a double fault. It was the first time Isner had been broken for the entire tournament, after 110 straight service holds. But Anderson couldn’t hold on. Isner regrouped, a fierce look on his face. He took the ball early and forced errors from his opponent when Anderson served at 5-3. In the tiebreak, a most risky proposition for any tennis player, Isner made two volley pickups that were probably the best he has ever played. Now 7-7, both executed remarkable tennis, their backs against the wall. Power. Placement. Touch. Anderson threaded three beautiful backhand passing shots to get set point on his serve at 8-7. Then he double faulted for the second time in the match: His first was the first point of the match. The mistake was costly. He lost the breaker, 11-9.
In the fourth set, Anderson broke once again for 3-2. But once more, Isner roared back, using hands and head — not brute force. His passing shots were now in the spotlight. Anderson then broke again, for the third time in the match. At 5-4 his nerves held. The two men split the first four sets.
“At that stage you try to fight at every moment,” Anderson said to the BBC.
Isner and Anderson have known each other for over a decade. Both came up through the American college system. Isner graduated from the University of Georgia in 2007 as a four-year All-American. Anderson played three years for the University of Illinois. Ironically, their teams met in the NCAA finals the same year Isner graduated. The Fighting Illini lost to the Bulldogs on their home courts.
This win for Anderson summed up a push from the South African, which began last summer during the American hardcourt swing. It ended at the U.S. Open with his runner-up finish to Nadal. In 2018, Anderson started slowly with an opening-round loss at he Australian Open. Things changed. He made the finals in Acapulco, the quarterfinals at Indian Wells and Miami, the semis in Madrid, and the fourth round at Roland Garros.
His upset of Roger Federer in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, though, confirmed to Anderson that he could play and win against the best. In their four previous meetings, Anderson had never taken a set. On Wednesday, he came back from two sets down and a match point to win 13-11 in the fifth.
“I felt like my commitment to the kind of tennis I wanted to play throughout the match, it definitely got better as the match progressed,” Anderson told the press after defeating Federer. “I think the toughest thing players face when going out playing somebody like Roger, in this setting, is giving yourself a chance. I feel like the times I’ve played him before I haven’t allowed myself to play. I was really proud of myself the way I was able to relax, play my game. That’s a big goal that I’ve had.”
Baseball’s extra innings are par for the course in that sport. This summer the Oakland A’s defeated the Chicago White Sox in five hours and 48 minutes, the longest game of the season. But teams worked to try to get the win. The hours are absorbed differently by those players as innings pass. Tennis, though, is an individual sport with no on-court coaching. The tension, both mental and physical, is shouldered alone. Adrenaline fueled Anderson and Isner for much of their match, that’s true, but the physical consequences will creep in over the next 12 hours. To preserve the sport and protect the players, the fifth set has to be shortened to a tiebreak. Otherwise the value of future matches, like the one approaching on Sunday, evaporates. That frustrates the ticket holders because they are robbed of their expectations, to which they are entitled.