WIMBLEDON, England — “Come on someone!” shouted a very English voice high above Centre Court, summing up the collective mood.
At that stage on Friday, it was 15-15 in the fifth set of John Isner’s duel in the men’s semifinals with Kevin Anderson at Wimbledon, but Isner’s latest Grand Slam marathon still had quite a ways to run.
When it finally did end, after 6 hours 36 minutes with the numbers on the scoreboard glowing in the gloaming, Isner walked to the net with his chin down.
He already knew how it felt to win the longest Wimbledon match in history. Now he knew how it felt to lose the second longest, falling, 7-6 (6), 6-7 (5), 6-7 (9), 6-4, 26-24.
Isner’s win eight years ago over Nicolas Mahut required three days and a fifth set that stretched to a stranger-than-fiction 70-68. But as a first-round match on Court 18, it was more an irresistible sideshow than the main event.
Friday’s battle of attrition came in the semifinals. Isner, 33, and Anderson, 32, had waited and worked many years for a breakthrough moment like this, building games beyond their massive serves.
The ninth-seeded Isner, in the midst of his finest season, was trying to become the first American to reach the Wimbledon men’s final since his former Davis Cup teammate Andy Roddick in 2009. The eighth-seeded Anderson was trying to become the first South African to do so since Brian Norton in 1921.
Only Anderson got what he was searching for, but it came at quite a price. He played 4 hours 14 minutes (and saved a match point) to upset Roger Federer in a five-set quarterfinal on Wednesday that stretched to 13-11 in the final set. He needed to play more than six hours to finally shake free of Isner.
Now he will have to try to recover in less than 48 hours to chase his first Grand Slam title against either Rafael Nadal, a 17-time major singles champion, or Novak Djokovic, a 12-time major singles champion.
“Obviously it’s not going to be easy,” Anderson said after completing the preliminary phase of his post-match recovery on a stationary bicycle and in an ice bath. “Obviously I’d like to have been done a little bit earlier in terms of my recovery, playing against two of the greatest players of all times.”
At least he has to play only one on Sunday. But which one? Nadal and Djokovic were unable to finish their semifinal, which they were forced to start under the lights and a closed roof on Centre Court shortly after 8 on Friday night because of the length of the previous match.
A local curfew at Wimbledon prohibits play after 11 p.m., and when the curfew came, Nadal and Djokovic were just about to finish their own epic third-set tiebreaker. After saving three set points, Djokovic closed it out before play was stopped with him leading, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (9).
They will have to return on Saturday to complete their semifinal before the women’s singles final between Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber. That means whichever man wins will not get a day of rest before facing Anderson on Sunday.
“Hopefully that will be an equalizer to some degree,” said Brad Stine, Anderson’s coach. “But it’s definitely not an advantage for Kevin to have played for nearly 11 hours in two matches. There’s no doubt about that. It’s going to take the same kind of heart and determination that he showed out there in these last two matches to go out there and just push himself through that on Sunday.”
Prevailing against Isner was as much a feat of concentration as of physical endurance.
They are two of the tallest men in the game: Anderson is 6-foot-8 and Isner is 6-10. Breaks of serve were guaranteed to be rare, and there were none in the first two sets.
But when they did finally come in the third set and early in the fourth, the player who had been broken responded by breaking back immediately.
It was as if the tiebreakers had magnetic pull, but Anderson was able to resist the attraction to close out the fourth set, 6-4.
And in the fifth set, which would last 2:55, Isner never managed to procure a single break point.
Instead, he was repeatedly forced to dodge 0-30 deficits on his own serve, along with five break points. He saved the first with an ace at 7-7 and the last with a backhand volley winner at 0-40, 24-24.
But that was not the most memorable shot of that critical game. That came on the second point with Anderson up by 0-15: He slipped and fell mid-rally, dropped his racket and then grabbed it as he scrambled to his feet and hit the next forehand with his left hand instead of his customary right.
He went on to win the exchange and eventually secure the only break of the final set.
“Obviously not a conscious thought,” Anderson said of grabbing the racket with his left hand. “Obviously that ended up being pretty key for me.”
Isner’s serve speeds were dropping late in the fifth set as he began to look stiffer between points, not all of which were bang-bang exchanges.
It was finally time for Anderson to serve for the victory, and though he missed a low forehand volley into the net on the first point, with the crowd antsy, he pulled himself together remarkably to win the next four points and the match.
When Isner’s final forehand sailed wide, Anderson could have been excused for doing cartwheels or at the very least multiple fist pumps on the grass. Instead he was remarkably restrained, partly out of fatigue, partly out of respect for Isner.
“Obviously I’m very pleased to get through, but at the same time I definitely feel for John, as well,” said Anderson, who lost to Nadal in last year’s United States Open final. “It’s not easy losing matches regardless of the score line in this sort of setting, semifinals at Wimbledon, but especially in those sort of conditions with such a close score line.”
The 2010 ultramarathon on Court 18 bonded Isner and Mahut, who have developed an unexpected friendship. Anderson and Isner already had a long history: They were rivals before they turned professional, when Isner was starring for the University of Georgia and Anderson for the University of Illinois.
Isner has won eight of their 12 matches on the ATP Tour, but they had never faced each other in a Grand Slam tournament in singles until Friday. Their college reunion on Centre Court lasted longer than some college reunions far from Centre Court.
But as memorable as it was for Anderson, he is not eager for others to have a similar experience. Moments after coming off the court, he told the BBC that he believed there should be a fifth-set tiebreaker at Wimbledon, the French Open and the Australian Open. The United States Open is the only one of the four Grand Slam tournaments that uses a tiebreaker in the final set of singles matches.
Anderson and Isner later reiterated their support for a format change.
“I personally don’t see the reason not to include it now at least at all the Slams,” said Anderson, a longtime member of the ATP Player Council. “Obviously John’s match in 2010, when it was ridiculous, I feel like a lot of people were talking about it then. Things didn’t change.
“It’s also tough being out there, listening to some of the crowd. Hopefully they appreciated the battle that we faced out there against each other, John and myself. But if you ask most of them, I’m sure they would have preferred to see a fifth-set tiebreaker, too. They’ve paid to see two matches, and they came pretty close to only seeing one match.”
The fans at Centre Court did not, however, get to see both men’s semifinals completed. Philip Brook, the chairman of the All England Club who was in the front row throughout the day and night, had the same experience.