A day after losing the longest semifinal match in Wimbledon’s history, John Isner signed off from the tournament on Saturday morning with a tweet expressing gratitude for the support he had received, and also issuing an apology.
“Sorry for screwing up the schedule today,” he said.
Isner probably could not have anticipated that his 6-hour, 36-minute loss to Kevin Anderson on Friday would be joined in the record books before he even returned home.
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, whose semifinal was halted because of a local curfew at 11 p.m. Friday night, played for 2 hours 22 minutes more on Saturday to complete what turned out to be the second-longest semifinal in Wimbledon history, right behind Isner and Anderson.
Surviving a seesaw of shotmaking and speed that was in steep contrast to the booming serves of Isner and Anderson, Djokovic won, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (9), 3-6, 10-8, in 5 hours 15 minutes.
It was Nadal who saved a match point at 7-8 in the fifth set, feathering a backhand drop shot just over the net in a disarming display of delicacy under duress.
That kept the long battle going, but the end came fairly suddenly two games later. Djokovic broke Nadal at love in the 18th game, forcing errors off the Spaniard’s torquing ground strokes with deep, penetrating returns. A sharply angled cross-court backhand on match point pulled Nadal wide out of the court, and he could not sling his outstretched forehand back into the court.
For Djokovic, it was a triumphant moment on his continued path back from assorted struggles, including elbow surgery earlier this year.
“Physically, Novak felt really good, and it was a question of mentally how he can handle it after losing the fourth set,” said Marian Vajda, Djokovic’s coach. “The fifth set was an incredible clash of the titans, I would say, because everybody had their game, everybody was on their horse.”
When it was over, Djokovic celebrated demurely, turning to his team and smiling as he walked toward the net. In a vivid indication of how close the match was, both players hit 73 winners and 42 unforced errors.
“Very special, it really could have gone either way,” Djokovic said. “It was very clear that very few things separated the two players, and basically until the last shot I didn’t know if I’m going to win. I believed it, but I know he was very, very close; he had some chances. These kind of matches, you live for, you work for.”
Vajda was delighted to see how well Djokovic responded to being back in a high-stakes match against one of his greatest rivals.
“He refreshed himself somehow,” Vajda said. “These matches, he remembers them very well. That memory stays, and his body got used to it. When he plays Rafa, he’s so happy to play Rafa because they know each other and playing that well.”
Despite it being a sunny and warm day, the match was played with a closed roof on Centre Court. It had started indoors on Friday night because of darkness and, for consistency, it remained an indoors match when play resumed.
Asked if he thought it made sense to keep the roof closed on Saturday, Nadal said no, but said he did not have any regrets after coming up short in his 52d match against Djokovic, a rivalry that Djokovic now leads, 27 to 25.
“I hit great shots,” said Nadal, who was playing in his first Wimbledon semifinal since 2011. “I played aggressive. I missed balls — not too many, but I missed some ones. When you play with that intensity, with that level of risk, that level of passion, sometimes you go over, no?”
Djokovic still has one more match to play in this tournament, but said he would nevertheless savor Saturday’s victory. “This is my trophy,” he said, smiling toward the statistics sheet in front of him at his news conference.
Djokovic has held the actual Wimbledon trophy three times, most recently in 2015. But his career has taken a tumultuous turn since he reached the final of the 2016 United States Open. He struggled with an elbow injury that forced him out of the second half of the 2017 season, only to come back in January and then decide he needed surgery.
After his victory on Saturday, Djokovic was intercepted by a BBC interviewer, who asked him: “How does it feel to be back?” Djokovic was silent for several seconds before replying.
“It’s hard to pick the words,” he finally replied. “I’m just going through things that flash back from last 15 months, and everything I’ve been through to get here. To get to the finals and win against the best player in the world, in one of the best matches I’ve ever played, over two days, I’m overwhelmed.”
Djokovic said he thought that he and Anderson, whom he beat in a five-set, fourth-round match here in 2015, would be on level-footing on Sunday, considering how much extra effort both put into their semifinal matches. It will be Djokovic’s 22nd Grand Slam final and Anderson’s second. Anderson lost last year’s United States Open to Nadal.
”I don’t know if I’ll be the clear favorite in that one; I think we’re quite even,” Djokovic said.
Vajda said he believed both players would show peak form physically, despite the wear and tear of the last two days.
“Once you go to the final, physically, you stay there,” he said. “Nobody will give up, nobody will have any sign of tiredness. It will be a full, full match with full, full focus.” And perhaps it won’t last quite as long as the two semifinals.