Deep into the evening of Friday the 13th, John Isner and Kevin Anderson laboured, battled and thrilled through more than six and a half hours, a 50-game fifth set, 112 aces, 247 winners (for only 83 unforced errors), and won more than 100 points at the net to play the second longest match in Major history. Isner, of course, played the longest one as well, here in 2010.
And that meant the second semi-final between two former champions, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, did not start until dusk began to settle over Centre Court. And it was played under the roof for almost three hours and three sets, continued the next afternoon for a further two and a quarter hours, and became the fifth longest match ever played at Wimbledon. There was so little between them that each made exactly 73 winners and 42 errors.
Anderson, at age 32, and Djokovic at 31, then combined to set up the first Wimbledon final in the Open era contested by a pair of over-30s.
Anderson also became the tallest ever Wimbledon finalist, while Djokovic took his Major match-win tally to 250, only the second ever (after Roger Federer) to pass that milestone.
But such statistics were small beer alongside what was really at stake on this blazing Sunday afternoon.
Novak Djokovic sought a fourth Wimbledon title, a 13th Major, and re-entry to the top 10 from his lowest ranking in 11 years, outside the top 20. For it had been a tough 18 months for the Serb whose hard-won victory at the French Open in 2016 to hold all four Majors at the same time had drained both his physical and mental reserves.
His confidence ebbed, there were changes to his long-standing coaching team, and there were precious few titles in the subsequent two-plus years. But a persistent elbow injury ended his run in the quarter-finals here last year. He did not play again until the start of this year, and even then, he was forced to abort his return to have minor surgery.
But after losing his openers in Indian Wells and Miami, things began to turn a corner as fitness, confidence—and his old coaching team—returned on the clay. The old Djokovic, the one who had accumulated 223 weeks as No1 and 68 career titles, emerged on Queen’s grass, where he came within a point of winning the title, in his first final in a year.
By the time he had reached that record show-down against Nadal, he had made himself a serious contender for the title at Wimbledon, with wins over No21 seed Kyle Edmund and No24 Kei Nishikori. The Nadal victory served only to strengthen his case: He entered the final as the favourite.
But what about the import of this day, this match, for his opponent?
Anderson was looking for his first Major title after reaching his first final at the US Open last year. Should he succeed, he would be oldest male first-timer in the Open era, second oldest at any Major in the Open era. And this was the first time in his 10th appearance that he had even made it past the fourth round. He was already guaranteed a new career-high of No5 by reaching the final: Victory, and he would break the top four.
It was heady stuff, and especially so considering it was his second assault on the elite level. For he was a mature starter, opting to go to college before embarking on the pro tour and making his mark in their mid-20s.
He had just edged to No10 when injury problems knocked him back—but he returned even stronger and fitter after turning 30, and the last 12 months had brought new rewards, new ranking highs, and ever-growing self-belief.
On his way to his first final here, he had beaten three seeded players in a Major for the first time, and not just any seeds. He beat defending champion Federer from two sets down, 13-11 in the fifth—another marathon and his first win over Federer. He also beat Gael Monfils for the first time, after three and a half hours, so had accumulated well over five more hours on court than Djokovic.
And the ever-astute Djokovic knew his opponent would be feeling not just those matches in his legs but the pressure of trying to win that first ‘big one’:
“Considering he’s playing only his second Grand Slam final, obviously he has a lot more to gain. If I take my last couple years, I don’t have much to lose myself.”
To make matters worse, Anderson also had a losing record against Djokovic, 5-1, though their last meeting, three years ago, right here, was a five set, three and three-quarters win to Djokovic. Anderson in particular would not relish such a battle again.
And it looked early on as though he did not need to worry. Djokovic was quick from the blocks, broke in the first game, and again in the fifth. It was the work of just 29 minutes for the former champion to serve out the set, 6-2.
The second set was little different. Seven minutes in, and Djokovic had a break in the opening game, and Anderson was piling up the unforced errors, 18 to just three from Djokovic. It was ever thus for the impenetrable Serb.
Anderson survived deuces in the third game, but was broken again in the fifth. There was a glimmer of a chance in the sixth, with Djokovic facing deuces of his own, but he would serve it out, 6-2.
But the contest began to engage more intensely in the third set, and there were more signs that Anderson was loosening up, his arm more free, his mind clearer.
By mid-set, he was starting to hit aces—two for 4-3—and then worked a break chance in the eighth. The crowd was willing him on: They wanted more. But the serving of Djokovic has got only better over the years, and even more so with the modified action he now uses. It has swerve, penetration, spin and pace by turn, a tough beast to read.
Yet in the ninth game, he served up two double faults for another break chance, this time set point. He did so again to offer a second set point. But he is so resilient, so focused, so accurate, that Anderson could not cash in.
The crowd roared the South African on when he held to love, and then had a look at 15-40, two more set points. Djokovic produced two big serves, two follow-up winners, only for Anderson to switch it up with slice and then a power forehand for another set point. An ace saved the game: It would be a tie-break.
And once there, Djokovic did not waver. He raced to 5-1, then 6-3, and took the victory, and his fourth Wimbledon title, 7-6(3).
It makes him just the fourth man in the Open era to lift this beautiful gold trophy for a fourth time, and he joins illustrious company: Federer, Pete Sampras and Bjorn Borg.
He also moves to 13 Majors and into fourth place on the all-time list of Major men’s singles titles, closing in on Federer’s 20, Rafael Nadal’s 17 and Sampras’s 14—an extraordinary picture given that three of them continue to win at this elite level: They have now shared the three Majors this year.
For now, though, the moment belonged to the Serb. He ate a blade of grass from what he called the “sacred place in the world of tennis”, and explained why it was so special:
“It feels amazing because for the first time I have someone crying out ‘daddy, daddy’.”
His son Stefan is not yet four years old, but was allowed into his box to see the victory:
“I can’t be happier, I’m very emotional for him being there.”
He went on to explain why this victory was particularly sweet:
“I had to really trust the process and had to trust in myself. I owe a great thanks to my team, to everyone who’s been supporting me in the years that haven’t been that easy. I faced for the first time this kind of severe injury, faced many moments of doubt. There’s no better place in the world to make a comeback—so this is very, very special.”
Anderson—well, it is hard place to be, and for the second time, holding the runner-up trophy. But he was as warm and courteous as usual—and he has become a much-liked man with the fans here.
He said with a smile:
“I’m definitely not feeling as fresh now as when I came into the tournament… but I would have played another 21 hours for the chance to do this.”
Looking at his team, he added: “I’m very confident I can give us another opportunity.”
He took the first big stride in New York last year, on his favourite surface. Perhaps next time, then.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge