WIMBLEDON, England — As the long fifth set of the Kevin Anderson and John Isner marathon semifinal lingered on with no foreseeable finish in sight, Isner looked up to the umpire and put forth an important question.
“Yeah, I asked to play a tiebreaker,” he’d later say, smiling. “It was joking, of course.”
While it might have been a moment of Isner humor in the delirium of a match that would eventually span 6 hours, 36 minutes, and end in Anderson’s favor 7-6 (6), 6-7 (5), 6-7 (9), 6-4, 26-24, many would applaud Isner’s subtle plea that it’s time for Wimbledon to embrace the fifth-set tiebreaker concept.
And if there is one player who knows the value of tossing aside tradition for the more modern approach of tiebreakers for all sets it would be Isner.
He’s earmarked in the historical annals as playing the two longest matches ever recorded at Wimbledon. He won the first of those matches, an 11 hour, 5 minute first-rounder over Nicolas Mahut that would finish 70-68 in the fifth-set, and lasted over three days.
The second is the one he lost Friday, and which would’ve put him into his first career Grand Slam final at the age of 33. In his mind, the ideal final-set tiebreaker at Wimbledon would commence after giving players a fair chance to win it outright.
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“I personally think a sensible option would be (to start the tiebreaker) at 12-all,” Isner said. “If one person can’t finish the other off before 12-all, then do a tiebreaker there. I think it’s long overdue. I mean, I’m a big part of that, a big part of this discussion, of course.
“I’m a proponent of changing that rule, for sure,” he added. “I think it needs to be done.”
Anderson, surprisingly thinking lucidly in a BBC TV interview straight off the court, expressed sympathy for Isner being on the losing side of their encounter. He also raised his support for the need of final-set tiebreakers at the Grand Slams.
Of the four Grand Slams, only the U.S. Open employs tiebreakers in all sets, a policy they‘ve had since adopting the use of tiebreakers in 1970.
“I think if you ask the players, when you get stuck in these positions, playing such long matches, it’s very tiring,” Anderson said. “It’s very tough, playing six-and-a-half hours, whatever we were out there for.
“I personally don’t see the added value or benefit compared to, say, at the U.S. Open where we’re playing tiebreaks in the fifth set,” he added. “I think progress was made to introduce a tiebreaker.”
Another salient point is the players became very aware that many in the crowd had seen enough of them. At a certain point all the games in the 50-game final set looked the same. The fans started to become vocal with one spectator bold enough to yell out, “I came to see Rafa,” making note the other semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic was still to come.
“It’s also tough being out there, listening to some of the crowd,” Anderson admitted. “Hopefully they appreciated the battle that we faced out there against each other, John and myself. They’ve paid to see two matches, and they came pretty close to only seeing one match.”
“At some point in time when it’s late in the fifth set, over 20-all, I can feel the crowd, they’re pretty antsy for us to get off the court. They’ve been watching us for over six hours.”
As it turned out the Nadal and Djokovic match, although played with lights under the roof, was suspended with Djokovic leading 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (9). An agreement reached with the local community when Wimbledon added a roof to Centre Court in 2009 dictates there will be no play at Wimbledon after 11 p.m.
Nadal and Djokovic are scheduled to return to Centre Court to finish the semifinal at 1 p.m Saturday, with the women’s final between Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber to follow not before 2 p.m.