On the Anderson-Isner marathon, and Nadal-Djokovic late-night sprint

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Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal will continue their incredible match on Saturday. (AP)

When John Isner beat Nicolas Mahut 70-68 in the fifth set at Wimbledon in 2010, John McEnroe said something to this effect: “That was a memorable moment for the sport, but let’s make sure we don’t let it happen again.”

At the time, I joked that Wimbledon should insititute a rule that would apply to one person: When Isner plays, a fifth-set tiebreaker goes into effect.

Fast forward eight years, and I was thinking of the same joke, but it didn’t seem all that funny. On Friday, Kevin Anderson beat Isner in the longest match since Isner-Mahut, 26-24, in six hours and 36 minutes. Like its marathon predeccessor, it was a tremendous testament to the skill and will of both players, who never let their intensity or concentration drop for a second all afternoon. But also like its predecessor, it went on far too long, and this time there were ramifications.

Anderson was left wondering how he can possibly recover in time for Sunday’s final. If you recall, Isner could barely stand after his 2010 epic, and won just five games in his second-round match—not an easy thing to do with his serve.

Worse, today’s marquee match, Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic, didn’t begin until after 8 P.M., under the roof. At 11 P.M., just as it was reaching a peak of excitement in a third-set tiebreaker, it had to be stopped due to a local curfew.

WATCH—Match point from Anderson's win over Isner:

That, in turn, means Nadal and Djokovic will come back tomorrow, starting at 1:00 P.M., one hour before the women’s final is scheduled to begin. Unless Djokovic, who is up two sets to one, ends things promptly, the match between Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber will be bumped from its traditional 2:00 P.M. time slot.

One possible solution would be to schedule the men at noon, making it less likely that they’ll delay the women (though there is a minimum-rest rule between one day and the next, which may preclude that). Another would be to move the men to No. 1 Court. For the future, one definite solution would be for Wimbledon to follow the US Open’s lead and install a final-set tiebreaker—for Isner, and for everyone else. And do it at 6-all or perhaps 9-all. Don’t wait, as some have suggested, for 12-all or 15-all; matches don’t get more exciting once they reach the death-march stage.

Despite those various disasters, there were also triumphs to be savored from Wimbledon on Friday.

There was the way Anderson and Isner lifted their games in the third-set tiebreaker, trading brilliant volleys and passes until Isner finally snuck through 11-9.

There was the way the two men went about their grim business in the extended fifth set, knowing they were locked into a two-man war of attrition, but never giving in.

There was the way Isner, gassed and hurting from a blister on his finger, kept going down 0-30, kept looking like he was on the verge of collapse, and kept slinging aces and coming back to hold.

There was the way Anderson ignored what must have been an overwhelming sense of frustration at those aces. Instead of going berserk, the way many of us would have, he told himself to “Come on!” and plowed ahead with his own service games. Between his win over Roger Federer, 13-11 in the fifth, and this one, Anderson served to stay in the tournament 24 times over the course of three days.

There was the way Anderson, at 24-all, slipped and fell, got back up, hit a left-handed (topspin) forehand, and won the point.

And there was the way Anderson, in the moments just after this epic ended, told a BBC interviewer how badly he felt for his friend Isner, and how much the American had inspired him to become a better player. Immediate post-match interviews don’t get any better.

WATCH—Daily Serve from Day 11 at Wimbledon:

Then, after all of that, there was the ostensible main event, Nadal vs. Djokovic. Beforehand, I thought that Rafa would begin with the mental edge. He had won their last two matches, he had won three majors in the last 13 months, he’s No. 1 in the world. Meanwhile, Djokovic hadn’t played a major semifinal since 2016.

I was wrong. After waiting for six hours, Djokovic came out wired and precise, and won the first set in vintage, dare I say clinical, fashion. Nadal answered in the second set, as you knew he would, by wrestling the rallies away from Djokovic, and by doggedly forcing him to make one precise shot after another.

In the third, moving quickly between points, both players brought their best, and the level of play ascended with each game. By the time they reached a tiebreaker, Nadal appeared to be pulling away. He was the one taking the initiative on his returns; the one pressing forward and ending points at net; the one mixing in the same, suddenly-brilliant forehand drop shot that he used to escape Juan Martin del Potro two days ago; the one who had three set points at 6-5, 7-6, and 8-7.

But it was Djokovic who won the set anyway, 11-9. He did what he once did so well, against Nadal and everyone else: He bent to the limit, but he never broke. He answered every Rafa winner with a solid serve, or an amazing get, of his own. Maybe playing under the roof helped, but while Nadal seemed to have the shot-making edge, Djokovic had the psychological edge when it mattered.

The Serb and the Spaniard had played 51 times, but none of those matches felt quite as urgent as this one. They were playing with a time limit hanging over them, and, more important, they were playing with the opportunity of a lifetime dangling in front of them: The chance to play a probably-exhausted Kevin Anderson—between them, Nadal and Djokovic are 10-1 against the South African—for a Wimbledon title.

The results were fireworks under the roof. Look for more tomorrow. Nadal’s not finished, and now we know Djokovic isn’t either.

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.


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