LONDON — After a relatively pedestrian first 10 days, Wimbledon came alive on Friday with Kevin Anderson’s win in the serve-fest against John Isner. It was a match that, albeit not the most beautiful, displayed tremendous fight from both players and one that didn't reach its merciful end until the 50th game of the fifth set, becoming the second-longest match in Wimbledon history at six hours and 36 minutes.
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal then began their 52nd (!) match against each other and looked to be playing a different sport entirely. There were breaks of serve, grueling rallies and wonderful variety. Wimbledon’s 11 p.m. curfew cut the match off for the night after three sets, with Djokovic up two sets to one, but Rafa came out with typical Rafa-level intensity and took the fourth set to bring us to yet another fifth set. And all the luckier we all are for having witnessed it. In the end, Djokovic emerged the victor 10-8 in the fifth set and is into his first Grand Slam final since the 2016 U.S. Open.
Serena Williams was next up on the court, looking to win her 24th Grand Slam title and tie Margaret Court’s record for the most major singles titles. It wasn’t to be, however, as Angelique Kerber put forth an efficient performance to win her third Slam—but first Wimbledon—by a 6-3, 6-3 scoreline.
Here are some takeaways from another remarkable day at the All England Club.
As good a tennis match as you’ll ever see, and not just because of X’s and O’s
You are unlikely to see a tennis match this good for a quite a while. Certainly, we did not see one at these Wimbledon championships. Some of that is the X’s and O’s, but don’t forget about the context here. A 12-time Grand Slam champion against a 17-time Grand Slam champion. A player in Djokovic who has been through it all over the past 18 months, as he lost his form after spending years perched at the very top of the sport. Nadal back in the Wimbledon semifinals for the first time since 2011.
If Nadal wins that match, he gets to play a tired Kevin Anderson for a chance at his 18th major. Perhaps a victory there would have reignited the Rafa vs. Fed GOAT debate, as Nadal would have closed Federer’s major lead to just two, plus he’s five years younger. If Djokovic had failed to close, it would have been nothing short of crushing. He was up two sets to one in the Wimbledon semis, finally playing up to his pre-2017 standard, riding high off momentum from a fantastic tiebreak win when play was stopped Friday night.
He didn’t fail to close, though. Djokovic emerged a victor in a match that helps us forget about these last two years. It sounds trite, but it was truly a match with historical implications. It wasn’t just a Wimbledon semifinal—it was a tennis history-altering affair of the highest order. Both players knew what was at stake, and it would have been deeply significant no matter the outcome. To have it come down to just a few points elevates the match from significant to all-time classic.
Djokovic and Nadal seem to always bring out the best in each other
Djokovic and Nadal have now played each other 52 times. There are lifelong friends who play tennis together frequently and haven’t faced off that often. So many of their matches have been played at an extremely high level. Part of that is X’s and O’s—Rafa’s heavy cross-court forehand, the one that gives Federer’s one-hander trouble, does not affect Djokovic. He is able and willing to play offensively in those exchanges. Both players are remarkably consistent, which leads to the 15-plus shot rallies that Anderson-Isner so desperately lacked.
Another part of it is that when you’ve played someone 52 times, there are few surprises. Nadal’s drop-shot, however, became a weapon in this match. A new feature, it seems.
Kevin Anderson catches a break, physically and mentally
After Anderson moseyed off the court following his six-hour marathon and gave a zombie-like interview to the BBC, the conventional wisdom was that he’d be at a massive disadvantage going into Sunday’s final. He’d spent more than 11 combined hours on-court between his quarterfinal and semifinal matches, after all. But then Nadal and Djokovic couldn’t complete their match on Friday night. Then they came back Saturday morning, and Nadal won the fourth set. Then the fifth set lasted 18 games, and mind you this wasn’t an ace contest like the Anderson-Isner match. Anderson, meanwhile, had the day off.
Physically, he caught a break, but also mentally. After his match, Djokovic spoke of REM sleep (or the lack thereof), about having to come finish on Saturday morning, about the difficulty of the match. Now he’s got to go play a Wimbledon final less than 24 hours later. Suddenly, Anderson won’t be the only tired one on the court, physically and mentally.
Novak is back…if he wins the final
And how wonderful it would be to see. It’s imperative that he close this one out, something that’s given him so much trouble in this barren stretch. He played well at the Queens Club tuneup but didn’t close that one out against Marin Cilic in the final. But beating Nadal in the Wimbledon semifinal in a match as good as that one certainly bodes well for Novak’s comeback.
I’ve written extensively about what happened to Novak over the past 18-or-so months, and it’s really mystifying. It’s not just physical—yes, there was the surgery, but he himself has spoken about mental and personal problems. This is somebody who won 11 out of 22 majors from the 2011 Australian Open through the 2016 French Open, and zero since. He’s now in his first Grand Slam final since 2016. Look at it objectively: This was a drop-off, and his comeback always seemed a matter of when rather than if. Should he win three more sets on Sunday, we can officially declare that Novak Djokovic is back.
One other thing: As far as we’ve detoured from the days of the Big Four, no man outside that group has won a major since Stanislas Wawrinka won the 2015 French.
A reminder that sports aren’t scripted
The stage was set for Serena Williams to complete her remarkable comeback, to seize her 24th Grand Slam title, to tie Margaret Court’s all-time singles titles record, to win Wimbledon less than 10 months after giving birth and having serious pregnancy health scares. Angelique Kerber wasn’t having it.
Shonda Rhimes was in the crowd, and I kept thinking how this match was example 1A of how sports aren’t scripted. All the credit goes to Kerber. She was really the first opponent this tournament that made Serena work—namely, she made her move, and it was clear that Serena’s still not back to 100% fitness.
Kerber may not be the preferred champion, for many, but she’s certainly a worthy one.
Hall of Fame time for Angelique Kerber
Kerber is now a three-time Grand Slam champion, having won every major except the French Open. And, more impressively, she’s beaten Serena in two of those three finals (she beat Williams in three sets at the 2016 Aussie Open). Make no mistake: Winning three majors is an automatic ticket into the Hall of Fame.
Kerber was the undisputed women’s tennis MVP in 2016, when she won two majors, and you can very easily make the case that she’s been the best player so far this season. She’s the only player who’s reached the quarters of all three majors and she’s back to No. 4 in the world. Everyone thought 2016 was the outlier, but she’s showing us that it was actually her disappointing 2017 that was the outlier.
Worry not, Serena fans
Serena played her worst match of the tournament, and I think part of that might have been nerves. Perhaps with Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle and Tiger Woods and so many other celebrities in the crowd, it hit her that she was really just two sets from major number 24. And as mentioned previously, Kerber’s consistency and insistence on making Williams move showed that she still isn’t back to where she was pre-pregnancy. Which is to be expected, of course.
Still, Serena did remarkably well to reach the final here. It’s entirely too early to start making U.S. Open declarations—there’s still six weeks of hard-court tennis to be played before New York—but if you had to choose favorites to win it right now, Serena has to be in the top four.