LONDON — Well, that went as everyone thought it would. Just your run-of-the-mill, six-hour, 36-minute match that went to 26-24 in the fifth set, with a lefty forehand the signature shot from the most important point of the match. I kid, but here are some non-jovial thoughts from Kevin Anderson’s 7-6, 6-7, 6-7, 6-4, 26-24 win over John Isner in the Wimbledon semifinals.
Leave the debates for another day
This will give rise to all sorts of debates about starting times and tiebreaks in fifth sets and, of course, whether we should even have fifth sets at all. But I would suggest we save that for another day and just commend both of these guys for their superhuman effort. There will be a time and place for a thoughtful, measured discussion as to how we can improve our sport. Now is not that time.
Don’t underestimate the mental toll a match like this takes
For sure, a lot of the exertion in this match was physical—they played 569 total points and 99 games. That obviously is an enormous physical price, even for two guys who weren’t playing very long rallies (there were 102 total aces). That’s still a ton of serving, and it will be interesting to see what level of health and energy Anderson brings to the final. (And luckily there is no match to determine who finishes third in the tournament, as Isner would likely forfeit that). From a mental standpoint, Anderson’s post-match interview with the BBC is a good indication of how draining a match like that is on the mind. The big South African was zombie-like, unable to so much as smile after the biggest win of his life.
I think we tend to underestimate the emotional durability you need for a match like that. Half of Anderson’s recovery tomorrow is just going to be of a spiritual variety. That you can be locked into a competitive endeavor for six and a half hours and not flinch is something we should be talking about as much as the fact that both men were, somehow, still serving in the mid 120’s deep into the fifth set. We call these matches marathons, but elite marathoners complete those races in a little more than two hours. No other sport calls on a single person to exert such energy—both mental and physical—for as long a time as tennis does.
Career-defining win for Kevin Anderson
You knew going into this match that these are two guys are late into their careers, both over 30, both spending the chunk of their primes in the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic era. This was their career moment, and what a match it was.
Anderson will get much more recognition for reaching the Wimbledon final than he did for reaching last year’s U.S. Open final. Beating Isner in a six-hour epic on Centre Court to reach the final is a little different than beating Pablo Carreno Busta relatively comfortably in front of a half-full Arthur Ashe, as he did in New York last year. This will be the defining win of his career, granted he does not win Sunday’s final.
A crushing loss for John Isner
Spare a thought for Isner. You have a feeling he reached a Grand Slam semi and thought to himself, “Finally, I’ll be remembered for something other than that damn Mahut match.” To the casual fan, that 2010 result has defined his career more than anything else. No longer. He reached the Wimbledon semifinal, his first Grand Slam semifinal, and loses 26-24 in the fifth set of a match for the ages.
He must be absolutely gutted by this on a number of levels. He should be able to take some solace in the way he fought, but he will be replaying some of those points—the decisions to serve-and-volley, the opportunities in the fourth set. You hope it doesn’t break this way, but realistically Isner will be thinking about this match decades from now.
A worthy victor
In the fifth set, Anderson was the stronger player. He had more energy, was moving better, and was holding serve easier despite having to serve to stay in the match a full 20 times. The player with more durability ended up winning. It would have been profoundly disappointing had he lost, because for so much of the fifth set, he was the better player.