Tennis history is written at the majors, where overloads of memorable moments are often provided. Wimbledon in 2018 was no different: We saw Novak Djokovic resurrect himself in one determined, two-week swoop; Angelique Kerber spot a golden opportunity and take it with the most mature and purposeful performance of her career; and a 36-year-old Serena Williams wow everyone by reaching the final 10 months after having a baby. We also saw three of the best matches of the year: Djokovic’s furious five-set victory over Rafael Nadal; Nadal’s dying-light win over Juan Martin del Potro two days earlier; and the blindingly brilliant quarterfinal between Kerber and Daria Kasatkina.
But the moment I’ll remember most, or at least first, from this year’s fortnight didn’t happen during any match. It happened right after the longest of them, Kevin Anderson’s six-hour, 36-minute semifinal win over John Isner.
After every match on Centre Court and No. 1 Court at Wimbledon, the winning player is whisked into a small room and interviewed by the BBC. It can feel like an ambush. The players are still sweating, and sometimes still breathing heavily, yet they must process and articulate their thoughts about a contest that ended minutes ago. Not surprisingly, the most common answer goes something like this: “It’s hard to describe how I’m feeling right now...”
WATCH—Match point from Anderson's win over Isner in Wimbledon semifinals:
How could Anderson possibly sum up a six-hour match, a 50-game final set, and an accomplishment—his first trip to the Wimbledon final at age 32—that he may never have seriously believed was possible until this moment?
If you had any doubts that he would come up with an honest, articulate, and possibly eloquent answer, you didn’t know Kevin Anderson very well. The former college player and member of the ATP player council is one of the sport’s most thoughtful players, and the rare one who doesn’t have an egotistical bone in his body.
A dazed-looking Anderson began with the normal reaction: “I don’t really know what to say right now.”
Then he did the smart thing and said exactly what was in his mind at that moment.
“Just playing like that in those sort of conditions, just really tough on both of us. At the end, you feel like this is a draw between the two of us, but somebody has to win.”
“John’s such a great guy. I really feel for him because being on the opposite side, I don’t know how you can take that, that playing for so long and coming out short. I apologize if I’m not more excited rignt now. It’s just so many mixed emotions. Getting through something like that is quite difficult.”
Anderson went on to talk about how his friend Isner had helped him and inspired over the years. It was clear where Anderson’s first thoughts were—not with himself and his own triumph, but with his devastated opponent.
We saw our share of sporting gestures over the last two weeks. There were the post-match embraces between Nadal and Del Potro, Nadal and Djokovic, and Kerber and Serena, to name three. But Anderson’s was almost agonizing in its empathy. He didn’t say, “It’s a shame someone had to lose,” which is the standard phrase; he said, “Someone had to win.” It was as if, for that split-second, Anderson wished he hadn’t had to win.
Those words may have come as a surprise, but it was an honest and relatable reaction. We like to say that tennis is a cutthroat, psychologically punishing sport—“boxing without the blood”—and that you have to be selfish to be good at it. And that’s true. But you’re not actually alone on court; you’re out there with another person who happens to be your opponent that day, and who may be your friend the next day. You notice all of his or her emotional ups and downs.
If the circumstances had been different, Anderson might have been rooting for Isner to reach the Wimbledon final. Each man knew how much this moment on Centre Court—this six-hour moment—meant to the other, because he was feeling exactly the same thing himself.
As Anderson said, it was “just really tough on both of us.”
To play a long tennis match with someone else creates a bond, no matter who wins or loses. It was nice to see Anderson, who had just been through one of the longest tennis matches ever, acknowledge that bond with Isner before talking about himself, or anything else.
More than any recent tournament, this year’s Wimbledon was a showcase for tennis’s “age of the aged”—six of the eight semifinalists were 30 or over, and another was 29. This is often seen as a bad sign for the game, that it’s withering somehow. I like to think that it’s growing up. Kevin Anderson is my Exhibit A.
Strokes of Genius is a world-class documentary capturing the historic 13-year rivalry between tennis icons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is timed for release as the anticipation crests with Roger as returning champion, 10 years after their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.