In Black Panther, the popular Marvel film, a ritual combat is held before the coronation of the titular superhero. The rules of the combat are simple – yield or die. Held in the backdrop of a waterfall with the audience watching, it is gladiatorial fight to the death.
The Wimbledon epic between Kevin Anderson and John Isner, a semi-final that lasted six hours and 36 minutes, was a bit like the ritual combat, which couldn’t end till someone yielded or didn’t have life left in them anymore. The second-longest match in Grand Slam history ended with the 32-year-old South African beat the 33-year-old American 7-6(6), 6-7(5), 6-7(9), 6-4, 26-24 to reach the first Wimbledon final of his career.
The fifth set alone was five minutes short of three hours. There was only one break of serve in 50 games. It took 48 games for the break of serve to finally come. It was Anderson’s sixth break point, while Isner had had none so far. And it came in suitably dramatic fashion.
After covering a distance of 7,288.6 feet, Anderson lost his balance and fell while returning at 15-0 on Isner’s serve, got back up on his feet and hit a hasty, left-handed forehand shot to keep himself in the game. Two shots later, Isner sent his forehand wide to go 0-30 down on serve. But this was no cause for concern, the tall American had served himself out of trouble at this very score six times in the fifth set.
But the wrong-handed and off-balance shot was perhaps all Anderson needed to finally get his chance as he got a triple break point with a rather simple forehand drop as Isner didn’t – or couldn’t – run to the net. He then botched a backhand into the net, and the rest, was courtesy. Isner, who didn’t have a single break point through the fifth set, was knackered and Anderson served for the match.
In some ways, that shot is the best way to describe in short the result of a match that was long, very long. Anderson was beaten, he came back up, tried something new, had a little bit more gas in the tank, and capitalised.
Serve, hold, snooze, tiebreak, repeat
Between two giants of 6’8’ and 6’10”, it was a tall ask for the first semi-final to be the centre of attraction. It was mere appetisers for the main course that was to be the 52nd clash between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
But with a total of 99 games (569 total points), it was actually the all-you-can-eat buffet which starts enthusiastically, becomes monotonous middle courses and then offers up tasty desserts. First, you couldn’t look at the match and then you couldn’t look away.
Sets one and two were all about sending down their trademark rocket serves on grass, keeping the rallies short, getting points on errors and holding on serve till the tiebreak. Both had chances, but the tiebreaks were also tied one each.
The first teaser that this game was not going to be short or straightforward came in just the third game when Isner put pressure on Anderson’s serve by taking the ball early. But the blows were parried from the baseline in a game that lasted 14 minutes with seven deuce and three breakpoints, all squandered.
In the first two sets, Anderson had fewer errors, but Isner was better at the net. Indeed, the only error the South African committed in the second set was on set point.
Then came the full trailer in the third set, when Isner’s serve was finally broken this Wimbledon after a whopping 110 games. Anderson, who had crushed a similar unbroken record against Federer, expertly tackled a body serve and sent it back as a backhand winner.
But serving for the set, Anderson’s second serve was tested and Isner attacked at the net like he had so often in the match, and got the break right back.
After 31 games of holds, we had back-to-back breaks and another tiebreak as Isner led two sets to one.
In the fourth set, the American’s serve was the first to be broken again, but Anderson could not consolidate while serving for the set. But he got another opportunity finally and converted it to clinch the fourth set with a superb volley and a returnable serve down the middle.
And then began a set that will go down in tennis history as the one that might just force a change of rules.
Tactically, there isn’t much to describe it: both were almost at the same level of serve and return, but for the break chances.
If there were two tennis players prepared for this long-drawn combat, they were these two. Isner practically owns the double-digit-fifth-set-clash zone, and is best known for the “endless match” which lasted 11 hours 5 minutes across three days at the 2010 Wimbledon. Meanwhile, Anderson, who had spectacularly upset the order of things by stunning top seed Roger Federer 13-11 in the fifth set in the earlier round and had spent long enough on court.
At 33 and 32, with a number of medical timeouts, and even running on fumes by the end of it, they looked like they could hold serve forever. The memes started flooding Twitter, jokes came faster than the winners. Djokovic was playing marbles in the locker room, the people covering the match were losing them.
Till a completely spent Isner blinked first. He was already leaning on his racquet for support. Anderson had outlasted the fifth-set veteran, but if there ever was a draw in tennis, this match should have been it.
The match has also thrown up a very important question for Grand Slams – the need for a fifth-set tiebreaker. Both Anderson and Isner called for it after the energy-draining encounter. Nadal and Djokovic might have some words to say as well, as one of them will have to play on three straight days to lift the title.
Anderson was so exhausted, he didn’t have the energy to actually celebrate what is, till now, the biggest win of his career. It remains to be seen if he can recover physically and emotionally for what could be a career-defining match, his second Grand Slam final in the last 11 months. Isner, who has been here so many times before, even offered a solution – tiebreak at 12-12 if not 6-6.
What is the point of playing along if no stakeholder is invested: the players, the fans, the administration handling curfew and tickets? What is the point of pushing physical limits in a match that will anyway be decided by the smallest of margin?
These questions will have to be addressed sooner rather than later. But for now, there is another question: How long will Nadal and Djokovic take, as they play on Centre Court ahead of the women’s final. If it is anywhere close to the first semi-final, Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber will be in for a long break.