The six-foot-ten (208cm) Isner finally succumbed to the six-foot-eight (203cm) Anderson just before 8pm local time in a grueling encounter full of plot twists in the longest men’s semifinal in Wimbledon history.
The fifth set involved 50 games with Anderson eventually triumphing 7-6 (8-6) 6-7 (5-7) 6-7 (9-11) 6-4 26-24 in the longest single-day match ever at the grass court tournament.
In 2010, Isner famously won the longest tennis match of all time, beating France’s Nicolas Mahut 70-68 in the final set, in a contest that lasted 11 hours, 5 minutes, took three days to complete and featured 215 aces.
The official Wimbledon Twitter account said the match between Anderson and Isner lasted exactly six hours and 35 minutes, beating the previous mark of four hours, 44 minutes, set by Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin Del Potro in 2013.
“I don’t really know what to say right now,” Anderson told the BBC, after winning the match on his first match points as Isner hit a forehand wide.
“It was really tough for both of us. Somebody has to win, John is such a great guy and I really feel for him,” added Anderson, who has known Isner for 14 years.
When asked how he would recover from such an epic and play in the Wimbledon finals on Sunday afternoon, the South African said: “It’s tough, I really don’t know.”
He added: “It’s a bit of a sign for the Grand Slams to change this five-set format.”
‘House of horrors’
The match between Isner and Anderson, who had been trying to become the first South African to reach the Wimbledon title match since Brian Norton in 1921, featured 102 aces, with only 22 rallies going to nine points or more.
Isner, who said Wimbledon had become “a house of horrors” for him since his 2010 match, had been trying to become the first American to reach the finals since Andy Roddick in 2009.
Anderson will now have to recover quickly in order to overcome a giant of a different kind in the men’s finals on Sunday: either the top-seeded Rafael Nadal of Spain, a two-time winner at Wimbledon, or three-time champion Djokovic, who posted a picture on social media of himself playing marbles.
The pair will face off for a record 52nd time in their careers in the other men’s semifinal on Friday evening.
Although the All England Club has a retractable roof with lights, in the past it has stopped play for the day at 11pm local time in order not to disturb its residential neighbors in southwest London.
Anderson, who had dethroned eight-time champion Roger Federer in the quarterfinals in a five-set thriller, advanced to his second grand slam finals. He lost last year’s US Open final to Rafael Nadal in straight sets.
Isner’s unbreakable run ends
Having served 284 aces between them to reach their first Wimbledon semifinal, and with their last five matches decided in tiebreak sets only, not many service breaks were expected in the 12th match between Isner and Anderson, whose rivalry dates back to their college days in the US.
After Isner saved a set point at 5-4 with a 129 mile-per-hour second serve, the match went, predictably, to a tiebreak. At 6-5, Anderson saved a set point with a smash, and went on to take the first set 7-6(8) in 63 minutes on two errors by his opponent.
After Anderson dropped the second set on a tiebreak despite making only one unforced error, a see-saw third set full of momentum changes followed, with both men creating chances, but unable to take them.
After two-and-a-half hours of play, Anderson managed to clinch the first break of serve in the match, ending Isner’s epic run of 110 straight service games won at Wimbledon.
The American’s response was immediate, breaking straight back in the next game as Anderson served for a two sets to love lead at 5-3.
No fifth-set tiebreak
After saving two set points in the third set tiebreak, Anderson blew his first set point at 8-7 with a double fault. Another set point came at 9-8, but this time on Isner’s serve, who saved it with a 138 miles-per-hour serve. The American roared and turned to his box as he took the third set on his third set point.
Having once again swapped breaks early on in the fourth set, Anderson broke Isner for the third time, and took the match into a decider on his fourth set point.
This time, there was to be no tiebreak as the final set at Wimbledon is traditionally decided by a difference of two games.
“We don’t want it to be 70-68, John,” someone shouted from the crowd at 8-8 in reference to Isner’s 2010 epic win over Mahut, as both men kept slamming down huge serves.
Anderson had a break point at 7-7 and at 10-10, but he missed the first one as Isner hit an ace and the second one as he mishit a backhand.
Then, 122 minutes into the fifth set, the crowd went wild as a tired-looking Isner faced two more break points, only to save them with back-to-back aces as dark rain clouds gathered over Centre Court.