In the battle of the giants, it turned out that it’s not the size that matters. It’s the sighs that matter… of blazing joy, and – in the longest match ever played on Centre Court – of wretched exhaustion.

Kevin Anderson was bidding to become the first South African man in 97 years to reach the Wimbledon final, and at times in his semi-final against John Isner it seemed possible another 97 years could pass before any outcome would emerge.

Anderson’s marathon defeat of Roger Federer in the quarter-finals was but a brisk stroll by comparison with this mega-duel lasting six hours and 36 minutes, yet the 32-year-old emerged from the second-longest match in Championships history as the last man standing.

Having never progressed beyond the fourth round in nine previous attempts here, last year’s US Open runner-up won 7-6(6), 6-7(5), 6-7(9), 6-4, 26-24 to reach the first Wimbledon final of his career.

“Playing like that in those conditions was really tough on both of us,” Anderson said, his voice trembling with fatigue. “At the end you feel like it’s a draw but someone has to win.

John is such a great guy and I really feel for him. I don’t know how you could take that, playing so long and coming up short. Congratulations to him on such a great tournament. Semis here is a remarkable achievement and I know he can come back stronger very soon.”

As previously billed, this was an actual Battle of the Giants (Anderson, at 6ft 8in, gazing up at Isner’s 6ft 10in), with the accompanying service power. Yet the first set produced much more than the widely forecast tie-break, including Actual Rallies.

In fact the third game was a 14-minute, seven-deuce affair with three chances for Isner to break. Serves aside, Anderson’s power forehand both got him out of trouble and created it for his opponent.

Meanwhile Isner deployed the killer delivery into the body, which can be his signature second serve, to rescue set point at 4-5. But in the tie-break, an Isner backhand fell short, and he couldn’t live with Anderson’s forehand power.

The second chapter was more procedural, although Isner coolly dismantled an Anderson opportunity at 4-4. Come the shoot-out, the American strolled out to 5-0; Anderson got it back to 5-6 but no further, and Isner’s 19th ace levelled the match.

John Isner serves
John Isner serves
Into episode three, and at last Isner’s impenetrable serve wavered at the 111th time of asking this Fortnight. But he nullified any disappointment by breaking back, helped hugely by poor choice of shot from Anderson when he looked a certainty for a 6-4 set. So to the tie-break once more.

Twice each man served for the set; but at the third time of asking for Isner, Anderson pulled a forehand wide. He summoned the trainer and left the court for a medical time-out.

Into set four, and the match lurched into one of its madder phases. At 2-2, umpire Marija Cicak issued a time violation as Isner served, Anderson broke, and Isner levelled with a sensational backhand down the line.

Again the No.8 seed swept a splendid winner past the rooted American for 5-4, no doubt to the babbling satisfaction of his sports psychologist Alexis Castorri – although what Castorri must have thought when Anderson binned three set points is anyone’s guess. Yet his charge’s nerve held, and remarkably it was still only Friday afternoon.

But in the tie-break-free zone of the fifth set, the combatants entered their own time-space continuum.
Anderson vanquished Federer 13-11 in that decider, in a snappy four hours and 13 minutes (although of course Isner’s 11-hour defeat of Nicolas Mahut here eight years ago is the grand-daddy of ’em all).

When this one ticked past five hours and 12 minutes, it eclipsed a record that had stood for 49 years to become the longest match ever played on Centre Court.

At 17-all, Anderson had two break points (his third and fourth of the set), whereupon Isner produced successive aces to obliterate Goran Ivanisevic’s all-time Championship record of 212 aces, set en route to the 2001 title.

Astonishingly at 24-all, Anderson fell mid-rally, got up to play a lefty forehand, stayed in the exchange and saw Isner send the ball wide. It paved the way to the crucial break, and at last the American could not respond.

At 14 minutes to 8pm, six hours and 36 minutes after they began, the men embraced – or perhaps simply leaned against one another for support.

For the first time since 1921, a South African is in the Wimbledon final. Kevin Curren, Durban-born and South African when he reached the semi-final in 1983, had become a naturalised American by the time he lost in the final to Boris Becker two years later.

“My dad used to say ‘let’s play left-handed, but I didn’t know it would come in to play at this stage of my career,” Anderson smiled. “It was a vital point. It’s tough to recover for the final. I hope Grand Slams change this format. But I’m through to the final. I will have to recover and be as fresh as possible. It will take a long time to process what’s happened in this match but being in the final at Wimbledon is a dream come true.”

Source: Kate Battersby|| Wimbledon