In a marathon of a contest that was befitting for the men involved, Kevin Anderson outlasted John Isner in a contest that approached seven hours in length 7-6, 6-7, 6-7, 6-4, 26-24 to reach the Wimbledon final.
Isner is perhaps most famous for his 11-hour, 3-day contest against Nicolas Mahut at the All-England Club in 2010 and Anderson was coming off a 13-11 5th set against Roger Federer only two days earlier.
The first set began as only one could expect: With a lot of aces, a lot of short points, and not much in the way of success by the returner.
Coming into the match, Isner had held every service game that he had played in The Championships, and that trend continued. But Anderson, who conjured up nerves of steel to come back from two sets down against top-seed Roger Federer in the quarterfinals, was equal to the task.
But it was the South African who was tested first. Isner earned a trio of break opportunities in the third game of the match and overall pushed the game to 13 minutes long and eight deuces before Anderson finally secured it.
Proceedings returned to initial expectations throughout the middle portion of the set, with both men holding easily. But, at 4-5, it was Isner’s turn to face a break point after a double fault. The American responded with a 129 mile-per-hour second serve and went on to hold.
A few minutes later, the seemingly inevitable tiebreak arrived. It was Isner who struck the first major blow in the tiebreak, firing a forehand winner to earn a mini-break and a 3-1 lead. Two points later, the players changed ends with the 9-seed maintaining his lead at 4-2. But Anderson struck back after the changeover with a passing shot winner to level the breaker. The next six points went the way of the server, resulting in the South African having a set point at 6-7. After a moderate rally, in which he withstood a barrage of deep forehands, Anderson claimed the set when Isner missed into the net.
After the tension of the tiebreak, the match returned to its regular form. The first eight games went with the server without either facing a break point, but at 4-all, Anderson managed to produce a break opportunity. Isner held his nerve in the ensuing point before eventually knocking off a volley winner and holding two points later.
Three more comfortable holds followed the relative excitement of the single break chance, and the two towering semifinalists found themselves, once again, at 6-all.
Like the first tiebreak, it was once again the American who drew first blood. Anderson appeared to struggle with an unpredictable bounce serving at 0-1 and his inability to handle it surrendered the first minibreak. But unlike the first set, Isner was able to double his advantage one point later with a forehand winner for a 3-0 lead. Isner went on to consolidate his lead and, at the changeover, the South African faced a tall task trailing 1-5. Anderson eventually earned one mini-break back with a backhand down the line, but Isner held his next service point to lead 6-3. The first two set points, on Anderson’s serve, went unfulfilled, but the American fired an ace to seal the deal and level the match.
Once again, play resumed in its normal pattern in the early stages of the third set. The first seven games went the way of the server with consistent comfort, but then, something that hasn’t happened for the entirety of the tournament, happened.
Serving at 3-4 and 15-30, Isner took a reckless swing at a forehand down the line and missed wide to hand over two break opportunities to Anderson. The American whipped a wicked body serve, but the South African managed to maneuver out of the way enough to fire a backhand return winner. After 110 consecutive holds at the All-England Club, Isner had been broken.
With Anderson serving for the set, conventional logic would have expected the 8-seed to soon be holding a two-sets-to-one lead. Conventional logic be damned. The South African appeared to be in control at 30-15, but a backhand passing shot winner from Isner leveled the game and Anderson missed a forehand to bring up an opportunity for the American to break back. Isner seized on the chance after finding his way to the net, and shockingly broke back immediately.
Following the surprising, successive breaks, Anderson and Isner proceeded to trade a few more holds and arrived, once again, in a tiebreak. For the third time, it was Isner who earned the early lead after Anderson framed a forehand on the opening point. However, the American was unable to protect his lead with his opponent producing an outstanding return winner to get things back on serve.
After changing sides at 3-all, it was Anderson’s turn to take the lead courtesy of a backhand winner. But Isner followed that up with a strong strike of his own to even the score at 4. Anderson held his next service point and then produced a pair of outstanding returns off of powerful Isner first serves… Unfortunately for the South African, his opponent was equal to both tasks, answering with a deft half-volley winner on the first and another great dig that led to a volley winner on the second. However, Isner was unable to convert on the ensuing set point and the men changed ends again.
Anderson missed long on a forehand to hand Isner a set point on his own serve, but he was equal to the task, eventually finding a passing shot winner to once again level the breaker. Stunningly, the South African took Isner’s next service point as well, and all of a sudden, it was Anderson who had a set point on his own serve. But in the big moment, he double faulted. The next three points went the way of the server, but with Isner leading 10-9, his deep backhand return forced an error from Anderson and the American seized the lead.
Both men left the court for a break after the tiebreak, with Anderson taking a medical timeout as well. After the intermission, the first four games of the set went the way of the server.
However, a combination of errors from Isner and a pair of stunning return winners from Anderson resulted in a break opportunity for the 8-seed. The South African went on to break Isner for the second time after another quality return and roared with enthusiasm as he jogged to his chair.
In another surprising twist that mirrored events in the previous set, Isner immediately pressured Anderson’s serve right back. The American fired a forehand winner on the opening point of the game and two points later launched another strike for 15-30. Anderson answered with an ace, but then missed a backhand long to hand Isner an opportunity to break back. The American seized the chance with an outstanding backhand pass down the line.
Undaunted, the South African found another opportunity to earn a lead at 4-all. Isner struggled to find his first serve in the game and played a few loose points en route to granting another break chance. Amazingly, after having not been broken for 110 service games to start the tournament, the American was broken for the third time since midway through the third set after his opponent fired a backhand passing shot for a clean winner.
And this time, Anderson was finally able to consolidate his break. He raced out to 40-love, squandered the trio of set points, but then fired two consecutive strong serves that earned him the fourth set.
While the 4th set featured a surprising trio of breaks, the 5th returned to the form of the first three, with both men holding comfortably even compared to how they had been previously. As the match neared, reached, and then exceeded the four hour mark, the twin towers resumed their titanic serving with no serious threats of serve coming for either man.
Of the two, Isner appeared to be the more fatigued, but the American continued to pound down serves and his cannon right arm eventually saw him to a 6-5 lead in the 5th.
Isner earned 15-30 after a strong forehand, but Anderson quickly stabilized and passed the first real test for either man on serve with a few strong serves and a couple of backhand errors from the American.
Routine holds continued until 7-all when it was Anderson’s turn to have his first sniff at a break in the final set. The South African quickly asserted himself for a love-30 lead. Isner answered with a volley winner and ace to level the game, but Anderson fired a strong forehand return to earn the first break point of the 5th. Isner erased the opportunity immediately with another ace and a growl of satisfaction. A 132 mile-per-hour body serve earned the American a game point and he converted with another service winner.
With Anderson serving to stay in the match for the fifth time at 8-9, he looked on his way to a comfortable hold at 40-15, but Isner played two good points to peg things back to deuce. But the steely nerve of the South African, which had been on full display in his previous round upset over Federer, when he held seven times to stay in the match, endured the moment. Anderson answered the threat by firing an ace and a second serve winner to once again level proceedings on Centre Court.
In the game immediately following, Isner sprayed consecutive forehands well out and suddenly faced love-30. But the American responded with two volley winners, the second bringing him to his knees, at which point he seemed to struggle in getting back up. But despite the obvious fatigue, Isner fired an ace to earn game point and then served and volleyed successfully to edge back ahead.
Anderson held easily for 10-all and then re-applied the pressure on Isner with a forehand winner earning him another love-30 opportunity. Isner again responded, this time with an ace and a forehand winner of his own, but another powerful return from Anderson created another break chance. With Isner attacking the net, the South African had a look at a backhand pass, but shanked it far beyond the baseline. Anderson would rue his miss, as Isner followed with an ace and then ran down a short volley to shoot a forehand winner up the line and hold again.
As the match reached five hours and then approached six, both men struggled to find any further opportunities at a break. Routine service holds resumed for over a full set worth of tennis until Isner stepped to the line at 17-all. The American missed an inside-out forehand wide to hand Anderson two break points, but promptly erased both with aces. Another service winner and a backhand passing shot closed out the game.
Throughout the 5th set, it appeared that Isner’s powerful serve was losing steam. His average first serve speed had dropped and he appeared to even be using an abbreviated motion. Despite that, the 6’10” American continued to find just enough free points off of his primary weapon.
After the American had fended off the previous two break points, it took until Isner was again serving at 21-21 for a game to even reach deuce. Isner fell behind love-30 once again, but recovered to 30-all. Anderson missed an easy backhand but Isner traded the favor back with a poor volley into the net. The South African then ran down a drop volley but could not get his next shot into the court and Isner held again with a volley winner.
Now over six hours into the match, the contest had eclipsed the second-longest Wimbledon match ever between Sam Querrey and Marin Cilic in 2012 and would eventually eclipse the second-longest at any major.
Anderson held his next service game to 15 and then immediately dialed up the pressure on Isner again, firing a forehand return winner and then a backhand pass to reach love-30. Isner appeared to miss the first serve on the next point, but challenged and was correct. The American won the next three points as well and held despite being put under threat again.
The recent pattern of play continued once more with the South African holding easily and the American again falling behind love-30 in his next service game. But Anderson was only able to get one return in on the next four points and even in that sole opportunity ended up flying a backhand long. Isner continued to hold on, despite his serve, which usually flies at up to 140 miles-per-hour, was down to the mid and low 120s.
Déjà vu continued on Centre Court. Isner again made no inroads on the return and then fell behind love-30 after Anderson spectacularly fell to the court but got back up, made a left-handed forehand to stay in the point, and then eventually won it. But unlike every other time earlier in the set, this time, Anderson took his lead to the next step and fired a forehand winner for love-40. With three break points to fend off, Isner served and volleyed to erase the first, but missed a backhand into the net on the second.
At 25-24, and with the crucial break finally in hand, Anderson lost the opening point after volleying into the net, but held his nerve behind superior groundstrokes and more timely serving.
Anderson will have Saturday to try to rest and recover before facing the winner of the second semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.