In fading light there came glory.
Coming into today’s semis we knew a key number combo was 26-25. Novak Djokovic had one more career win over archrival Rafa Nadal.
Little did we know that 26-24 would become a number combo that will we will long cherish. Little did we know that Kevin Anderson, who just two days ago heroically downed the best player of all time 13-11 in the fifth set, would come back to score one of the most compelling victories in tennis history. Little did we know that his 6:36 7-6 (6), 6-7 (5), 6-7 (9), 6-4, 26-24 win would be the longest Wimbledon semifinal and the second longest match in Grand Slam history. Little did we know that this man, whom we affectionately call a benign beanpole, in just ten months had emerged from the shadows to reach the US Open and Wimbledon finals.
And little did we know that, as a kid, when he was injured, his dad would say to him, “Come on, Kev, let’s play left-handed.” How could the South African man, who is applying for American citizenship, have known that the skill he learned as a boy would be so vital at crunch time on the biggest stage in the game?
No less than five times in the fifth set, the more fresh and fit Anderson had raced out to seemingly commanding 30-0 leads over the noble but fading warrior, Isner. Each time – at 7-all, 9-all, 10-all, 21-all and 22-all – Anderson pounced. But each time Isner – the man who’d repeatedly insisted that he didn’t want to be known for Wimbledon marathons, but who was once again ensnared in one – roared back.
John’s serve is a marvel. Like Serena’s, it’s a unique get-out-of jail-shot that rarely disappoints. The game’s answer to Houdini used his weapon to escape disaster. At 24-all in the fifth, Anderson again won the first point on Isner’s serve. “Here we go again,” murmured the 15,000 faithful who were on hand. Then Big John had Kevin in big trouble. Scrambling on the baseline, the South African giant fell to his knees. “Down goes Anderson, down goes Anderson,” we thought. Surely this would be Isner’s point. But then Kevin rose and called on his unknown childhood skill – his ability to stroke left-handed.
The best spontaneous southpaw you can imagine poked the ball back, forced an error, and scored a devastating triumph. He won the telling point as he showed the grit and determination he’s worked so hard to gain. Few are more professional. Again the big man who travels with a small dog was within two points of breaking his mighty foe.
This was a tennis match about mighty men and miniscule margins. Isner is 6’10.” Anderson is “just” 6’8”. Isner’s No. 10 – Anderson’s No. 8. Isner’s 33 – Anderson’s 32. Both were trying, each in his tenth attempt, to reach his first Wimbledon final. Both have huge games and big memories – long ago they’d met as collegians. At times it seemed the only difference between them was that John wore his cap backwards.
In the third game of the match, Isner couldn’t convert three key break points. Like Andy Roddick, the last American to reach a Slam final, he couldn’t nail a key backhand volley to an open court. But after he lost the first set, the Dallas resident roared back, winning two tiebreaks to grab a 2-1 set lead.
John McEnroe said Isner’s returns were better than ever, his volleys were sharper and he was stronger mentally. Isner admitted that since his signature 2010 marathon win, Wimbledon had been a house of horrors, and he’d never gotten beyond the fourth round of any Slam. He was recently married, and his wife Abby is expecting a daughter in September.
Isner said that, at 33, he’s a better player than ever. He won the Miami Open and seemed bound for the Wimbledon final. But in the fourth set Anderson hit three blazing shots to score a huge break. According to Radio Wimbledon, Isner’s “balloon of enthusiasm was pricked by the break.” Anderson won the set to force a 2:55 fifth set for the ages.
Isner is the heftiest man in the ATP – some 35 pounds heavier than his foe. That doesn’t help in six-hour matches. Isner’s serve and his movement slowed. His body sagged. His heel hurt and he suffered from a wretched blister. “The tiredness is starting to be etched on his face,” said the BBC. He was on the ropes – it was survival of the fittest. Anderson tried to raise his own emotional energy. It didn’t quite work. Still, he danced during changeovers. Nineteen times he served to stay in the match. But since he couldn’t land the key punch he needed, he called on his secret weapon. Few knew that, recovering from elbow surgery in Johannesburg as a kid, he’d played left-handed for four or five months.
Today the Floridian said his belief was the key to his triumph. And we didn’t see that any more clearly then when the giant untangled himself, right there in front of the royals in the fancy seats. He got off the grass and stuck a dagger in his wobbling foe. He won the point and, at the 6:31 mark of the match, hit a fabulous return to finish off what one observer called “the best return game by anyone after six and a half hours of play.”
While it was Anderson’s triumph, clearly both combatants were drained. They heaped poignant praise on each other, while calling for the implementation of a tie-break at 12-all in the fifth set of marathons.
The classic fell short of equaling the Federer-Nadal 2008 “Greatest Match of All Time” Wimbledon final – “The Battle in the Dusk.” Still, tennis was astounded. Wimbledon now has treated us to three straight over-the-top men’s matches just this week: Anderson over Federer and Nadal over del Potro in the quarters, and now the triumph of a man who’d emerged from the edge of the sport to reach the finals of the game’s two greatest tourneys.
Anderson spoke of how he hoped that his play would inspire children in his native South Africa. But how could it not? For today, in the fading light, the South African man had found glory.