As another, younger American man fell by the wayside, 37-year-old John Isner remained standing in the British twilight, all 6 feet 10 inches of him, his hopes still alive at tennis’ most prestigious tournament.
The crowd was cheering his every mistake, as well as every winning shot by his opponent, hometown hero Andy Murray. But at last, on the strength of a monster serve that earned him 36 aces and helped give him three match points, Isner became the second American man Wednesday to advance to the third round at Wimbledon.
As one of the oldest players on tour, Isner understood the significance of a win against a two-time champion whom he acknowledged, in an interview afterwards on Centre Court, as the more successful, more all-around player.
“The age I’m at now, I need to relish these moments. This was one of the biggest wins of my career, just given the atmosphere, [which] was fantastic,” said Isner, who triumphed 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-7 (3), 6-4. “To play as well as I did against one of our greatest players ever, Andy Murray, was a huge accomplishment for me.”
Not long before, Reilly Opelka, seeded higher than Isner, was defeated by Dutch player Tim van Rijthoven, denting what had been the most successful starting run by American men at Wimbledon in 27 years. Of the 16 who entered in the main draw, 13 had won their opening matches and progressed to the second round.
Four went a step further Wednesday: Isner; Steve Johnson of Orange, who at 32 also beat a British player; Tommy Paul, 25; and Frances Tiafoe, 24. Opelka and Christian Harrison lost. The highest-seeded American man, Taylor Fritz, who is seeded 11th, plays his second-round match Thursday — against another Brit.
Scottish-born Murray, 35, is trying to come back from a series of injuries — including two surgeries on his hip — that have sidelined the former world No. 1 and pushed him to No. 52 in the rankings. The last time he added to his collection of titles was in 2019 at an event in Antwerp, Belgium.
He had never lost to Isner in eight previous encounters, the last of which was 5½ years ago. Wednesday’s match was their first on grass and their first at Wimbledon, the place that turned Murray into a national icon when he won his first title in 2013, which ended a 77-year drought for British men at their home Grand Slam tournament.
But Isner knows something about Wimbledon records himself. He has played the two longest matches ever recorded here: a 6-hour, 36-minute marathon in the 2018 semifinals, which he lost, and a colossal 11-hour, 5-minute victory in 2010 that stretched over three days and that is commemorated by a plaque on the grounds of the All England Club.
His effort against Murray lasted three hours and 23 minutes.
“That’s really all it came down to,” Isner said after serving out the final game at love, which included back-to-back aces. “I guess I didn’t give him many opportunities to spin his web and get me tangled up in it. … I had an incredible serving day and I needed every single bit of it to beat him.”
In his opening-round match Monday, Isner notched 54 aces. Throughout Wednesday’s match, his deliveries were regularly clocked at more than 130 mph, whizzing cannonballs that Murray had trouble reading, let alone returning.
“He served very close to the lines in important moments,” Murray said. “When he does that, [it] doesn’t always matter what you’re trying to do. Not easy.”
A comeback seemed possible after Murray took the third set, the roar of the partisan crowd audible throughout the grounds. But after he was broken in the fifth game of the following set, the prospects of one more Wimbledon championship receded into the gathering dusk. A nearly 10-minute break for officials to close the Centre Court roof and turn on the lights at about 9 p.m. failed to swing the momentum back in Murray’s favor.
Several minutes later, it was all over, with an elated Isner and a deflated Murray, who suffered his earliest exit from Wimbledon. Isner chuckled when the on-court interviewer asked how the match ranked with his previous Wimbledon experiences.
“A lot of people ask me about that match in 2010, ask me about the great memories I have from that match, but it’s more nightmares, being on the court for 11 hours,” he said. “Really, I think this could be at the very top for me.”
His next opponent is 20-year-old Italian player Jannik Sinner.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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Two American women also advanced Wednesday: Jessica Pegula won her first-round match and Alison Riske her second-round match. Ann Li lost her bid to reach the third round.
Emma Raducanu, the reigning U.S. Open champion and Britain’s great hope on the women’s side, also lost her second-round match to unseeded French player Caroline Garcia 6-3, 6-3.