When two tall men, one 6ft 8in and the other taller by two inches, armed with games that are built around their huge commanding serves, face off against each other, the match almost invariably proceeds along at least some foreseeable lines.
There will be plenty of short rallies, service games will be held, sets will go into tie-break, and victory and defeat will depend critically on such things as return of serve and, of course, nerves.
Having played 10 tie-breakers in their last six encounters, South African Kevin Anderson and American John Isner served up three more in an astonishingly long and gripping semifinal which lasted 6 hours and 36 minutes before Anderson closed it out 7-6(6), 6-7(5), 6-7(9), 6-4, 26-24 — the last set lasting 175 nail-biting minutes.
It was Isner who came into the semifinal without losing a service game, who was the better player in the first set. Returning Anderson’s serve with a Djokovic-like brilliance, Isner had three break-points in the third game of the set, losing one of them to an undemanding backhand volley that he hit wide.
While Anderson held his nerve to hold, it was Isner who was asking the questions. But possibly under scoreboard pressure, the American’s own service game wobbled when he was down 4-5, giving Anderson a break-point — and a set-point.
But Isner, after missing his first serve, sent up a bold swat of a second serve of 129mph to level at deuce. And then followed this up with a 140mph ace and another service winner to win the game and level the set 5-5.
At the tie-break, it was Isner who broke first to go up 4-2, but Anderson came right back at him with a brilliant forehand on the run to erase the mini-break. Eventually, two netted groundstrokes gave Anderson the first set 7-6(6).
Predictably, the games went with serve in the second set, with Anderson earning a break-point in the ninth, but failing to capitalise. It was the South African who played the much better game this set, returning serve extremely well and making very few unforced errors.
But tie-breaks, as the first set demonstrated, show no respect for what has gone before. And this time, it was Isner who powered through, forging a huge 5-0 lead before slipping a bit. But with a set point at 6-5, he wound things up with a scorching ace down the centreline.
Proceeding on serve till 4-3, the match took a turn with Anderson capitalising on an error and then with a return of high-kicking serve that he tackled at the height of his face.
The break had a significance that went beyond this match, as Isner had not dropped a game on serve this Wimbledon until then, winning an astonishing 110 of them on the trot.
But he broke right back with some brave aggressive play, taking this set as well to a tie-break, which witnessed some incredible tennis and some dramatic mini-breaks and nervous double-faults. Finally, Isner wrapped it up 11-9 with a deep return that set up the point.
By the time the fourth set had begun, it was clear that this match, as some regarded it, was no warm-up act for the Nadal-Djokovic semifinal to be played later on the same court — not a starter for the main course. This was focused tennis played at a very high level, marked by a boldness that bordered on effrontery.
This set was a departure with Anderson, thanks to some wonderful returns of serve, breaking to go up 3-2 only to find Isner breaking back instantly. But Isner would allow Anderson to break back again to go up 5-4.
After getting to 40-0 on serve, Anderson was pulled back to deuce but made the most of the fourth break-point, winning the set 6-4.
Visions of 2010
When the fifth set went to 6-6, it raised visions of Wimbledon 2010 when Isner was locked in a marathon with Nicolas Mahut, which, at 11 hours and 5 minutes, is the longest match in history.
Both players were strong on serve, though it was a tiring Isner, plagued with a blister on his finger, who was under threat, routinely needing to draw on his reserves to close service games out.
In contrast, Anderson didn’t concede a break-point in this set, taking one of the six offered by Isner under fading light.
The crowd, including those in the Royal Box, went into a Mexican wave when Anderson broke to lead 25-24 and then cheered him every point of the way to victory.
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