WIMBLEDON, England — What John Isner wanted above all at Wimbledon this year was to achieve something great enough to relegate to a career footnote the fact that, in 2010, he won the longest match in tennis history — a three-day, five-set ordeal with Nicolas Mahut of France that took 11 hours 5 minutes of match play to settle, 70-68 in the fifth.
Now 33, Isner indeed achieved a career-best showing at Wimbledon this fortnight, reaching the semifinal of the grass-court classic. But in what proved another draining marathon, he added another footnote to a resume of extremes. Utterly and understandably depleted, the 6-foot-10 Isner bowed out of Wimbledon on Friday after taking part in a new record — the longest semifinal in tournament history.
It was won by South Africa’s Kevin Anderson, 32, who was pushed to the brink of exhaustion, as well, in a 6-hour 36-minute match before prevailing 7-6 (8-6), 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (9-11), 6-4, 26-24.
The fifth set alone lasted 2 hours 55 minutes, sapping the last bit of energy from both competitors and delaying the start of the other men’s semifinal, between world No. 1 Rafael Nadal and former No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who share 29 Grand Slam titles and five Wimbledon championships between them, until past 8 p.m.
No doubt, the mind-numbing length of the Isner-Anderson match — as well as the toll it took on the victor less than 48 hours before Sunday’s men’s final; the delay it caused for the start of the other semifinal, which was to follow on Centre Court; and the inconvenience to broadcasters — will re-open the debate over whether Wimbledon should adopt tiebreaks to settle fifth sets.
It is a debate worth having.
For all the commendable fitness and focus displayed by Isner and Anderson, the match was not great entertainment. There were thrilling moments, to be sure. The right-handed Anderson won a key point well into the seventh hour by picking up the racket with his left hand after dropping it in a fall and swatting the ball back for a winner. There was valor on both sides. There were staggering statistics galore, including 53 aces for Isner and 49 for Anderson. And the third-set tiebreak was a beauty.
But the physical toll exacted on the 6-8, 205-pound Anderson can’t possibly be remedied in time for Sunday’s meeting with a current or former world No. 1.
With years of familiarity between them and scant difference in their towering height and ballistics serves, Isner and Anderson traded blasts for hours without either asserting dominance.
The crowd was supportive for hours on end.
But at 13-13 in the fifth set, mindful that a second semifinal of higher-caliber tennis was being kept waiting, a ticket-holder shouted above the quiet, “We want to see Rafa [Nadal]!”
Isner, 33, a native of Greensboro, N.C., and Anderson, 32, who was reared in Johannesburg, were longtime rivals at the top ranks of college tennis, when Isner played for Georgia and Anderson, for Illinois.
For that reason, they knew one another’s game well. But at 6-10 (Isner) and 6-8 (Anderson), their games are also as similar as the two sides of a Rorschach print, relying heavily on a massive serve and forehand.
Isner hadn’t had his serve broken in 95 games in the run-up to Friday’s final. It’s among the trickier shots in men’s tennis to handle, not just because of its speed but because it strikes the court from such an extreme height.
Neither Isner nor Anderson had won a Grand Slam title nor, prior to this week, advanced beyond Wimbledon’s fourth round despite a decade of trying.
The hot, dry weather throughout the fortnight favored their games, hardening the sunbaked grass courts. That translated to higher bounces, which accentuated the punch of big serves and proved a welcome assist to players who don’t like to bend.
The players split the first four sets, three of them by tiebreaks.
Isner called for medical treatment early in the match on a blister that had developed on the index finger but played on.
Anderson broke the stalemate in the third set by snapping Isner’s streak of 110 service games without being broken. But serving for the set, the South African was broken in turn. The third-set tiebreak was a compelling match-within-the-match, featuring blistering passing shots and deft volleys. Each had a chance to close it; Isner ultimately did.
But with tiebreaks not allowed in the fifth set at Wimbledon, and neither able to break serve, both strapped in for extended play, the set knotted at 6-6.
At that point, they’d been on the court more than four hours, leaving Nadal and Djokovic, whose match was to follow, with nothing to do but wait.