WIMBLEDON, England — John Isner’s name is immortalized on a plaque outside Wimbledon’s Court 18, where he defeated Nicolas Mahut in the longest match in tennis history — a five-set ordeal that lasted 11 hours 5 minutes spread over three days in June 2010.
Each year since, Isner, a 6-foot-10 former NCAA all-American with a booming serve and a blazing forehand, has sought to achieve something so great at a Grand Slam that it would relegate his part in that memorable feat of endurance to a career footnote.
Having finally reached the semifinals of a major here at Wimbledon, Isner, now 33, strode onto Center Court at 1 p.m. on Friday, just one victory away from competing for the long-sought major title that would eclipse everything else on his résumé. But it was nearly 8 p.m. when he trudged off in defeat, a blister on his right foot and searing pain in his left heel, utterly and understandably depleted after the longest semifinal in Wimbledon history. It lasted 6 hours 36 minutes, and it was settled by a fifth set that alone lasted 2 hours 55 minutes.
The match was won by South Africa’s Kevin Anderson, 32, who also was pushed to the brink of exhaustion by the 7-6 (8-6), 6-7 (7-5), 6-7 (11-9), 6-4, 26-24 marathon.
“It stinks to lose,” Isner said, “but I gave it everything I had out there. I just lost to someone who is just a little bit better at the end.”
Anderson’s opponent in Sunday’s final will be world No. 1 Rafael Nadal or former No. 1 Novak Djokovic, whose semifinal was the second scheduled Friday on Center Court. Given the extreme length of the first semifinal, Nadal and Djokovic’s match didn’t get underway until nearly 8:10 p.m. With sunset set for 9:13, Wimbledon officials closed Centre Court’s retractable roof before the start.
Still, play was halted just after 11 p.m. to comply with the tournament’s curfew. The break fell at a natural stopping point — after Djokovic had fended off three set points in a third-set tiebreak to take a two-sets-to-one lead, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (11-9).
The match will resume at 1 p.m. (8 a.m. Eastern time) on Saturday — an hour ahead of the scheduled start of the women’s final, which pits seven-time Wimbledon champion Serena Williams against Angelique Kerber. That match will follow on Centre Court whenever the men’s semifinal has finished.
No doubt, the mind-numbing length of the Isner-Anderson match — as well as the toll it took on the victor less than 48 hours before Sunday’s final, the delay it caused for the start of the subsequent semifinal and the inconvenience to broadcasters — will reopen the debate over whether Wimbledon should adopt tiebreaks to settle fifth sets.
It is a debate worth having.
Isner staked out his position in his post-match news conference, proposing a tiebreak once the score reaches 12-12. “I think it’s long overdue,” he said.
The 6-8, 205-pound Anderson, who said his feet were sore and swollen and described his legs as “pretty jellylike,” also advocated for fifth-set tiebreaks.
“It’s very tiring. It’s very tough, playing 6½ hours — whatever we were out there for,” he said. “I personally don’t see the added value or benefit.”
He also alluded to the fans, who were supportive for hours on end. But at 13-13 in the fifth set, increasingly agitated that a second semifinal of higher-caliber tennis was being held up, one ticket-holder shouted, “We want to see Rafa [Nadal]!”
“Hopefully they appreciated the battle that we faced out there against each other,” Anderson said. “But if you ask most of them, I’m sure they would have preferred to see a fifth-set tiebreaker, too. They’ve paid to see two matches, and they came pretty close to only seeing one match.”
For all the commendable fitness and focus on display, the match was not great entertainment. There were thrilling moments, such as when the right-handed Anderson won a key point well past the six-hour mark after falling, losing his racket and then grabbing it with his left hand before swatting the ball back for a winner. There was valor on both sides. And there were stunning statistics: 53 aces for Isner, 49 for Anderson.
But what can Anderson possibly have left for Sunday’s meeting with Nadal or Djokovic — particularly after his five-set quarterfinal against Roger Federer, which lasted more than four hours?
“Obviously it’s not going to be easy,” Anderson said when asked how he will rebound. “Obviously I’d like to have been [finished] a little bit earlier.”
Isner and Anderson were rivals in the top ranks of college tennis; Isner played for Georgia, Anderson for Illinois. So they knew each other’s games well, each aware of the other’s reliance on a ballistic serve and big forehand.
The third-set tiebreak was a compelling match within a match, featuring blistering passing shots and deft volleys. Each had a chance to close it; Isner ultimately did.
But with tiebreaks not allowed in the fifth set and neither able to break serve, both strapped in for extended play when the set was knotted at 6.
At that point, they had been on the court for more than four hours, leaving Nadal and Djokovic with nothing to do but wait.