Coming into today’s semis to buy sports cards we knew a key number combo was 26-25. Novak Djokovic had one more career win over arch-rival Rafa Nadal.
Little did we know that 26-24 would become a number combo that will we will long cherish. Little did we know that Kevin Anderson, who just two days ago, heroically downed the best player of all time 13-11 in the fifth set – would come back to score one of the most compelling victories in tennis history. Little did we know that his 6:36 7-6 (6), 6-7 (5), 6-7 (9), 6-4, 26-24 win would be the longest Wimbledon semifinal and the second-longest match in Grand Slam history. Little did we know, that this man, who we affectionately call a benign beanpole, in just ten months had emerged from the shadows to reach the US Open and Wimbledon finals.
Little did we know that, as a kid, when he was injured, his dad said, “Come on Kev, let’s play left-handed.”
Little did the South African man, who is applying for American citizenship, know that the skill he learned as a boy would be so vital at crunch time on the biggest stage in the game.
No less than five times in the fifth set, the more fresh and fit Anderson had raced out to seemingly commanding 30-0 leads over the noble, but fading warrior Isner. Each time – at 7-all, 9-all, 10-all, 21-all and 22-all – Anderson pounced. But each time Isner – the man who repeatedly insists that he doesn’t want to be known for Wimbledon marathons, but who was once again ensnared in one – roared back.
John’s serve is a marvel. Like Serena’s, it’s a unique get-out-of jail-shot that rarely disappoints. The game’s answer to Houdini used his weapon to escape disaster. At 24-all in the fifth, Anderson again won the first point on Isner’s serve. Here we go again, murmured the 15,000 faithful who were on hand. Then Big John had Kevin in big trouble. Scrambling on the baseline, the South African giant fell flat on his considerable back. “Down goes Anderson, down goes Anderson,” one thought. Surely, this would be Isner’s point. But then Kevin rose and called on his childhood skill, his ability to stroke left-handed.
The best spontaneous southpaw you could imagine poked the ball back, forced an error and scored a devastating triumph. He won the telling point as he showed the grit and determination he’s worked so hard to gain – few are more professional. Again, the big man who travels with a small dog was within two points of breaking his mighty foe.
This was a tennis match about big men and small margins. Isner’s 6’10.” Anderson’s “just” 6’8”. Isner’s No. 10. Anderson’s No. 8. Isner’s 33, Anderson’s 32. Both were trying, in their tenth attempt, to reach their first Wimbledon final. Both have big games and big memories. Long ago they met as collegians. At times it seemed the only difference was that cool John wore his cap backwards.
In the third game of the match, Isner couldn’t convert three key break points. Like Andy Roddick, the last American to reach a Slam final, he couldn’t nail a key backhand volley to an open court. But after he lost the first set, the Dallas resident roared back, winning two tie-breaks to grab a 2-1 sets lead.
John McEnroe said Isner was returning better than ever. His volleys were sharper and he was stronger mentally. Isner admitted that since his signature 2010 marathon win, Wimbledon had been a house of horrors. He’d never gotten beyond the fourth round of any Slam. He was married recently, and his wife Abby is expecting a daughter in September.
The big man said that, at 33, he was a better player than ever. He’d won the Miami Open and seemed bound for the final. But in the fourth set Anderson hit three blazing shots to score a huge break. According to Radio Wimbledon, Isner’s “balloon of enthusiasm was pricked by the break.” Anderson won the set to force a 2:55 fifth set for the ages.
Isner is the heftiest man in the ATP – some 35 pounds heavier than his foe. That doesn’t help in six-hour matches. Isner’s serve and his movement slowed. His body sagged. His heel hurt and he suffered from a wretched blister. “The tiredness is starting to be etched on his face,” said the BBC. He was on the ropes – survival of the fittest. Anderson tried to raise his emotional energy. It didn’t quite work. Still he danced during changeovers. Nineteen times he served to stay in the match. But since he couldn’t land the key punch he needed, he called on his secret weapon. For few knew that, as a kid recovering from elbow surgery in Johannesburg, he played left-handed for four or five months.
Today the Floridian said his belief was the key to his triumph. And we didn’t see that any more clearly then when the giant untangled himself, right there in front of the royals in the fancy seats. He got off the grass and stuck a dagger in his wobbling foe. He won the point and, at the 6:31 mark of the match, hit a fabulous return to finish off what one observer called, “the best return game by anyone after six-and-a-half hours of play.”
While it was Anderson’s triumph, clearly both combatants were drained. They heaped poignant praise on each other, while calling for the implementation of a tie-break at 12-all in the fifth set of marathons.
The classic fell short of equaling the Federer-Nadal 2008 “Greatest Match of All-Time” Wimbledon final – the battle in the dusk. Still, tennis was astounded. Wimbledon now had treated us to three straight over-the-top men’s matches: Anderson over Federer and Nadal over del Potro in the quarters and now the triumph of a man who emerged from the edge of the sport to reach the finals of the game’s two greatest tourneys.
Anderson spoke of how he hoped that his play would inspire children in his native South Africa. But, how could it not? For today, in the fading light, a man found glory.
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