LONDON—Certainly it was going to be a shootout. The possibility existed that it would also be a marathon. On this Friday the 13th, both occurred, and while Kevin Anderson proved in the end to be the richer man for it, one was left wondering what tennis had gained as a result of what has arguably became a dysfunctional approach to grand finales.

Over the course of six hours and 36 minutes, Anderson had beaten John Isner in the semis of Wimbledon by the surrealistic score of 7-6 (6), 6-7 (5), 6-7 (9), 6-4, 26-24. The final set lasted five minutes short of three hours. If in one sense the battle was dramatic amid the high-wire act of watching these two big servers go toe-to-toe, in another, the trench warfare of the fifth was ridiculous in excess. Surely, now is the time for majors such as Wimbledon to consider ending decisive sets in tiebreakers—perhaps even, as Isner suggested following this match, at 12-all.

For here is the question: Who was playing it out good for? Certainly the fans were eager for Anderson-Isner to end. The first four sets had lasted nearly four hours. As the fifth went on, the spectators who’d packed Centre Court only grew vocal when one of the two players had an opening on the other’s serve. They weren’t cheering for Anderson or Isner. They were cheering for closure, for the overtime set to end and the next semi—pitting Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic—to begin. When Anderson at last broke Isner at 24-all, cheers erupted on the scale of a Davis Cup tie. The fans commenced the wave. Anderson served it out at 15. A thunderous standing ovation ensued.

Said Anderson, “I don't know what got me through today's match other than just a will to try to succeed, keep pushing myself…I tried as much as I could to just keep fighting. I take a lot of pride in that. Fortunately, I was able to find a way over the finish line.”

Perhaps the most notable statistic was that of the 569 points played in this match, 264 were service winners (including 49 aces for Anderson, 53 for Isner).

WATCH—Match point from Anderson's win over Isner in the Wimbledon semifinals:


“I competed hard,” said Isner, who also spoke afterwards of a blister on his right foot and a painful left heel. “That's what it comes down to. That's what I have to be proud of. It stinks to lose, but I gave it everything I had out there. I just lost to someone who was just a little bit better at the end.”

For the second match in a row, Anderson had fought back hard to win an epic. Wednesday, versus Roger Federer, he’d rallied from two sets to love and match point down to win it, 13-11 in the fifth. In three days, he’d weathered the stiletto-like Federer and withstood the hammer of Isner—an impressive display of that circular connection between mental and physical fitness.

The first three sets followed the pattern of a TV show based in the Old West: Nearly an hour of permutations, closed out by a seven-minute gunfight. In the first-set tiebreaker, though Isner served at 4-2, Anderson captured that point with a sweeping crosscourt forehand pass. Back on serve, Isner served at 6-7, but lost a long rally with a forehand into the net.

The second-set tiebreaker saw Isner take a commanding 5-0 lead. But in an ominous pattern, Anderson persisted, grabbing a point on Isner’s serve and firing three aces. Only at 6-5, courtesy of a 133-M.P.H. ace, was Isner able to level the match.

At 6-6 in the third, on the opening point of the tiebreaker, Anderson served and shanked a forehand to instantly hand Isner the mini-break. But once again, he persevered, breaking Isner two points later. With Anderson serving at 6-all, a sharp Isner backhand helped the American reach set point. Amazingly, Anderson won both points on Isner’s serve to hold a set point of his own at 8-7—only to double-fault. And even though Anderson won the next point to go up 9-8, Isner proved tougher, taking the tiebreaker 11-9.

But given how well these two serve, an Isner sprint to the finish was unlikely. In the fourth, in a classic tennis pattern that infects players of all levels, Anderson broke to go up 3-2, only to drop his serve in the next game. At 4-all, 30-40, Isner served and volleyed on his second serve. Failing to do much with a forehand volley, Isner could only watch as a crisp Anderson backhand pass flew past him crosscourt. Though Anderson blew a 40-love lead in the next game, a pair of fine serves allowed him to close out the set.

“He's someone that I have so much respect for because he works very hard at what he does,” said Isner. “He's someone that pushes me, I think. Maybe he'd say the same about myself.”


The unfortunate marathon at Wimbledon: Anderson ousts Isner in semis

The unfortunate marathon at Wimbledon: Anderson ousts Isner in semis

And so the fifth came. The match had already lasted more than three-and-a-half hours. The absence of a tiebreaker cast a scent of dread over Centre Court. Here was Isner, his overtime history well known even to those don’t know a volley from a valley, throwing down big serves—23 aces in the fifth—and trying to calibrate consistency with aggression. Isner would make his way to the net 109 times in this match, winning the point on 76 of those occasions.

But as the fifth went on, Anderson was the one staying in the rallies longer. The Anderson forehand, once prone to being struck too flat and sailing, behaved superbly. And in the fifth, he too would serve well, cracking off 25 aces.

“By the end,” said Anderson, “we were obviously both struggling. From his serve, he was down in terms of his velocity coming through. I just tried to put as many balls as possible in the court.”

Anderson’s best opportunity to break had come at 17-all, 15-40. Isner erased both with aces. By 22-all, Isner’s weariness was notable. Though he held both of his next two services game, at 24-all he wasn’t so lucky. A mélange of fine shots from Anderson—clipped forehand volley, dazzling retrieval featuring a lefty forehand, powerful forehand groundstroke—allowed him to break Isner at 15 and comfortably close out the match.

“You're really in a war of attrition out there,” said Anderson. “It's way beyond a normal tennis match or tactics. I mean, it's just who's going to, you know, outlast each other.” Alas, the marathon.

In the short term, an impressive victory for Kevin Anderson. In the long term, a major issue for tennis’ leaders to ponder.


The unfortunate marathon at Wimbledon: Anderson ousts Isner in semis

The unfortunate marathon at Wimbledon: Anderson ousts Isner in semis

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.