LONDON -- You grew to love this Wimbledon men's semifinal, then hate it, and as Kevin Anderson emerged victorious after 6 hours and 36 minutes, you loved it all over again.
Arguments over whether this match was "good" for tennis can wait for another day. Instead, we should salute the sheer heroism from Anderson and John Isner, coupled with a slight appreciation for the ridiculous nature of it all, with few break points but several records toppled.
It was gruelling, in the extreme. Eventually Anderson would win 7-6 (6), 6-7 (5), 6-7 (9), 6-4, 26-24 Friday in the longest semifinal in Wimbledon history, and the longest match ever on Centre Court.
There was a constant feeling of the players being cats, the match being a ball of wool being tugged away from them. It felt forever just outwith their grasp, and as the legs wearied so did the ability to chase wayward forehands which, some six hours previous, would have been punished. It was a duel that ended up amassing 103 aces and just 10 double faults. A match of 129 Isner winners to Anderson's 118. Of 569 points.
Anderson just had too much for Isner. Both played some delightful points, in the midst of the heavy metal nature of this match. Indeed, on some heavy metal albums, there is a track informally labelled the "palate cleanser" where the artist switches it up, and goes for something calming, before returning to the ear-bashing. Here, the palate cleansers were the tiebreaks, or the slightly longer rallies beyond a mere handful of shots, or the little drop shots which nestled just over the net. It was always going to be like this: two big servers, big hitters, both tall enough to stoop under every doorway but with the ability to throw in the odd deft shot.
Watching this match as a reporter was like covering the Tour de France, or perhaps the 24 Hours of Le Mans, given the power and endurance involved. Anderson and Isner must have the strongest, most resilient elbows and wrists in SW19. In a match built on the dominance of serve games, you kept your eye on the speed of serve. Isner won, incidentally, with an effort of 142 mph way back in those long-forgotten days of the third set. Back then, folks joked about how this could go on for hours and hours; by 7 p.m. local time, they were no longer laughing, but instead had forgotten to blink, such was the encapsulating nature of this gladiatorial spectacle.
As the match progressed, you started to gloss over the serves, the backhands, the forehands. Instead you looked for little out-of-the-ordinary details. Anderson started jumping from foot to foot between points, in a style similar to the warm-ups for one of those fitness DVDs that come out every Christmas. At eight games apiece in the fifth set, he re-gripped his racket. He was in for the long haul. He started nursing the turf with his big toe before serving, all little ways of refocusing: body and mind on the task at hand, game to game, point to point.
By that time, Centre Court had filled, emptied and refilled three times over. Just prior to Anderson's final service game, even the Royal Box was joining the tiresome wave. Parents had already phoned their babysitter asking if they could stay longer, dinner plans had been shelved, calls of astonishment made to those who might be missing out. But in the first three or four sets, this was a match low on spectator engagement. A few of those with tickets had opted to stay away, treating this as the mere appetizer before gorging on the main course of Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic. As word started flying around the All England Club as to what was unfolding on Centre Court, they took to their seats.
Certain folk attempted to cut through the tense, ever-darkening skies with their own vocal contributions. A handful of shouts included: "For God's sake, boys. Please!" at 16 games apiece in the fifth. This had already been trumped, though, by one exasperated cry of "Come on! Someone!" Earlier in the fifth, a voice rang out: "Come on! We want to see Rafa!" Isner had already smiled at someone shouting at him "70-68!", because of course Isner's name is already next to the longest match ever, when he took over 11 hours to beat Nicolas Mahut in 2010. Even Mahut's name got a frequent airing. Oh how long ago was that collective chortle at a random bird landing on Centre Court back in those youthful moments of 1-1 in the first set.
Details of that first set now seem intertwined with the haze of all 11 days of this wonderful championship. That 13-minute third service game, which Anderson held, having saved three break points. I should've known then to cancel Friday evening's theater tickets. Then there were the serves, the countless forehands down the line from Isner, those awkward, pinpoint backhands from Anderson, the crowd loving the match one minute, bemoaning it the next, then loving it again -- almost like a tennis equivalent of "Ulysses."
As the fifth set progressed, you could see Isner tiring. Anderson kept on re-energising himself -- he must have shouted "Come on!" a thousand times during the match. Isner increasingly, as silly as it sounds, relied on his serve. Anderson played the more creative tennis, but Isner kept on forcing Anderson to serve to stay in the match. Both were heroic, both no doubt exhausted.
But waiting all the while were Djokovic and Nadal, nowhere to be seen on Centre Court yet still at the forefront of spectators' minds. They had come to see the Grand Slam kings, rather than these two big hitters who were both in their first semifinal here at the championships. Those who left their seats empty should regret their call. That man near me who spent the second set looking up recipes for pavlova, only to then leave and return in the twilight days of the fifth, could understand but a fraction of the experience.
It was at 7:45 p.m. local time that Anderson took two deep breaths, bounced the ball twice, and prepared to serve. They had already tested the roof by then, checking the mechanics were working ahead of Nadal-Djokovic, which was destined to be an indoor, floodlit occasion. Anderson launched into his serve, Isner returned with a forehand, Anderson a backhand, then Isner responded with a loose, wide forehand. Game, set, match, Anderson.
Both were out on their feet. Anderson's celebration was muted, a half-stretch of celebration, a look of relief and bewilderment to his nearest and dearest, any hint of a smile prevented by a mix of exhaustion and sincere commiseration toward his opponent. Isner walked around the net and the men embraced. Only they will know the true levels of fatigue experienced, or how many walls they had to break through.
But for those watching, those who saw every point, they will go home and talk about this match. And how they grew to love it, in a strange sort of way.