7–6 (6), 6–7 (5), 6–7 (9) 6–4, 26–24. Ninety-nine games. Six hours, thirty-six minutes. To say that Kevin Anderson won the match, beating John Isner, seems misleading. Anderson survived.
It was hard to watch, harder to look away. Both Anderson and Isner are extremely tall—the South African is six feet eight, the American six feet ten—and their games are built around their massive serves. Both have strong forehand, too, and underrated all-around games that have produced new highs in recent months—a U.S. Open final for Anderson, a Masters title, in Miami, for Isner—but neither was built for rallies. For this match, the final scoreline was an exaggeration of a reasonable prediction.
There were a few pretty moments—Anderson outstretched in full flight, flinging forehand that caught the opposite corner; Isner cruising toward the net, deftly hanging half-volleys, but mostly the points were bang-bang, serve-return, point over—or shorter. The two men combined for a hundred and two aces.
It had the iterative quality of a nightmare. Neither man could break the other; neither man could be broken. It was impossible to give up the match, but the effort it took to prolong it had begun to seem unbearable. As the games mounted, Isner in particular looked miserable. His shoulders slumped, his gait was staggered. His large eyes looked haunted. It was impossible not to think of the eleven-plus-hour match he had played at Wimbledon against Nicolas Mahut, in 2010, which Isner won 70–68 in the fifth—a match that left both players bruised and blistered. That match is celebrated as one of the remarkable moments in tennis—and, for sheer endurance, it is a remarkable achievement—but even for the victor it would be better forgotten. Earlier this week, he referred to Wimbledon as a “house of horrors.”
Isner served served first in the set—normally an advantage, since, as the players traded holds, it meant playing from the front instead of behind. Around the 17–17 mark, though, as he shuffled to the service line, I had the distinct impression that it was more of a burden. Each service toss was an exercise in masochism. Holding serve would mean that he would still have to play on—and have to break Anderson’s nearly unreturnable serve. But losing serve was not an option; not only because it meant losing but because it also meant playing on. Even giving up would have meant not a sudden death but a slow bleedout. So, repeatedly falling behind 0–30, he would find those tiny reserves still left, rear back, and slam the ball back into play.
Which is not to say that Isner, no matter how much he was suffering, ever considered giving up. He was playing for a chance to play in the final of Wimbledon, and he doesn’t seem the type to surrender under any circumstances. Still, from his demeanor, it seemed he was bearing on because he had no choice. Anderson finally broke through in the fiftieth game of the fifth set—a result that seemed, for some time, inevitable.
As the royal box flashed by on the screen, I found myself thinking of the Queen, set to meet Isner’s compatriot Donald Trump later that day, and of the Prime Minister, Theresa May, who was at that very moment miserably taking part in an impossible test of endurance, gritting through Trump’s nasty denigrations. Isner, as it happens, had said that it would be “awesome” if Trump came to watch him, a fact that I tried to forget as I watched him, adding to the endless tallies of a sports fan’s spiritual compromises.
It was an ugly match. There was no way around it. And yet the last note of the match left me feeling, somehow, hopeful. Anderson was both too tired to celebrate and too mindful of the loser. Interviewed as he left the court, Anderson looked almost embarrassed to be accepting congratulations. His mind was on the man he had beaten. “At the end, you feel like this is a draw between the two of us,” Anderson said. “John’s such a great guy, and I really feel for him, because if I’d been on the opposite side, I don’t know how you can take that, playing for so long and coming up short.” It was a show of empathy, generosity, and selflessness by a man who had every right to tout himself—a display that felt like a rare and urgent rejoinder to the moment we find ourselves in.
It will be impressive if Anderson can even stand for the entire Wimbledon final, let alone win.