October 2, 2022

Open Court

MORE TENNIS THAN YOU EVER NEEDED

Frantic Friday at Wimbledon: The Marathon

It was Friday the 13th. So it wasn’t a huge surprise that a few wacky events took place at Wimbledon.

But what transpired, from 1 p.m. when John Isner and Kevin Anderson walked onto Centre Court until 11:05 p.m., when Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic walked off with unfinished business, was beyond anyone’s imagination.

Chapter 1 is called The Marathon.

WIMBLEDON – Without a ball even being struck, so many were dismissing the Isner vs. Anderson men’s singles semifinal clash as a battle of (serve) bots.

“Hurry up, bots, so we can see some real tennis. Can you believe they put Rafa and Djoker second up?” was a common opinion. “Can we just skip right to the tiebreaks?” was another.

Fans can like what they like, and hate what they hate.

But until things got silly many hours later, the 6-10 Isner and the 6-8 Anderson gave it absolutely everything they had, the very best of themselves in the biggest moment of their working lives.

It was a career-defining moment for these two late bloomers who grew up in the college ranks, and needed a decade on tour to get to Centre Court, Wimbledon on the second Friday of the fortnight.

Yes, there were plenty of tiebreaks – one in each of the first three sets. And yes, there were plenty of aces.

There also was some aggressive returning by Isner, whose backhand is as good as it has ever been. He redlined on returns and groundstrokes and for a long time, it seemed that might be enough to earn him his first Grand Slam final.

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Isner had a blister on his finger, blisters on his feet, a sore heel – but still, he carried on.

Anderson def. Isner 7-6 (6) 6-7 (5) 6-7 (9) 6-4 26-24

Isner won most of the statistical battles in that first set. He had more break points. He put two-thirds of Anderson’s powerful serves into play with some breathtaking returns.

And his opportunities in an astonishing 13-minute third game on Anderson’s serve missed by so little. It was a set he should have won. but somehow didn’t.

But he bounced back, winning the second set and the third. That one came in another gripping tiebreak that featured two incredible passing shots by Anderson when Isner had the set on his racket at 5-4. There was a double fault on set point by Anderson  – only his second of the entire match against 20 aces at that point.

In the fourth set, Isner was down a break after the best return game Anderson played the entire match. But he got it back. And then, he gave it back up at 4-4.

So they were into a deciding set. And this not being the US Open, there wasn’t going to be a tiebreak.

The dread that many fans had about it being a tiebreak contest turned into dread that it would be a contest not be decided on a tiebreak.

At this point, the match was clocking in at a reasonable three hours and 41 minutes.

It was closing in on 5 p.m. But with the roof and lights at the ready, there were six more hours of play available and it was inconceivable that the marquee match of the day, Nadal vs. Djokovic, wasn’t going to be affected.

Other than the long wait, of course.

How naïve we all were.

The marathon begins

Isner served first to open the final set. That’s generally considered an advantage, especially in a match of big servers.

At four hours, 11 minutes, at 4-5, Anderson served to stay in the match for the first time.

One slip on serve, one break, and it was going to be over.

Anderson did this. He did this twenty times. Each time, he had no margin for error. Each time, he came through.

Had Isner gotten broken on his own serve, at least he had an opportunity in the next game to try to break back. Anderson had no such opportunity.

At this point, the level of tennis disintegrated.

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How could it not? Not only were they into the fifth hour, they had the weight of five precious matches in their legs. 

In Anderson’s case, he had defeated seven-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer 13-11 in the fifth set just two days before, after Federer failed to convert a match point all the way back in the third set.

The level of tennis was replaced by an unbearable level of tension and suspense. Each tiny hint of a possible opening weighing in the air.

At 7-7, Isner saved a break point. 

At 8-9, Isner was two points away when he fought back from 40-15 to deuce on Anderson’s serve. To no avail.

At 12-12, they passed the five-hour mark.

At 14-15, the 11th time Anderson had to hold serve, there were a few raindrops.

Anderson, the (relatively) smaller man, was looking significantly fresher at this point – fresh being a relative term. But still, he couldn’t break.

By 16-17, there was some actual rain. And the Grim Reaper and his disciples – i.e. referee Andrew Jarrett and the grounds crew – stood ominously at the ready.

They hit the two-hour mark for the set at 17-17. And Isner went down 15-40 and had to save two break points. Which he did, with aces No. 50 and No. 51.

At 19-20, the 16th time Anderson needed to hold, the match hit the six-hour mark.

At 21-21, Isner went down love-30, but holds.

Four games later, at 23-23, Isner went down love-30 again. But after two unreturned serves, he held.

The turning point

At 24-24, with the match time at 6h28 and the fifth set at 147 minutes, came the unscripted moment that can so often turn the tide in this kind of situation.

Anderson tripped and fell after making the return at 0-15. He lay on the ground, his racket in front of him, and all Isner had to do was fire a forehand – somewhere.

Except he didn’t. The American mishit the ball, and it bounced slowly enough back to Anderson that he had time to get up, think quickly – and grab the racket with his left hand.

He hit a fine-looking lefty forehand, got the score to love-30 and a few moments later, got the fateful break.

“When I was younger, I had elbow surgery at a pretty young age. Actually played four or five months just with my left hand. A lot of guys with two hands can’t hit the ball left-handed,” Anderson said afterwards.

“It was interesting because I hit it pretty well. I was reflecting that I wouldn’t have thought back then that I was going to use a left-handed shot at the semifinals of Wimbledon at, I don’t know what the score was, whatever it was when I hit it.”

At 6h32, he served for it.

At 15-15, a clap of thunder could be heard in the distance.

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Finally, at 7:46 p.m., it was over. Anderson looked in shock. There was almost no reaction as he walked to the net, crossed over, and embraced his opponent.