Forget the strawberries and cream. Skip the scones. Wimbledon’s English niceties took a backseat this fortnight to some of the most remarkable tennis ever played on the venerable Centre Court at the All-England Club.
In consecutive matches, Kevin Anderson of South Africa displayed guts and guile with as brilliant display of tennis as Wimbledon has ever witnessed. First, in the men’s quarterfinals, he dropped two sets and then faced match point in the third against Roger Federer, one of this generation’s greatest players. He was, at that moment, at the bottom of a very steep tennis mountain.
Anderson held off Federer and went on to score an unlikely five-set comeback win. Then, he faced American John Isner, master of the tennis marathon, who once won a Wimbledon match that stretched over three days with a fifth set that lasted six hours, 11 minutes.
That was good preparation for his semifinal in this tournament against Anderson, which went five sets before the South African prevailed, in a draining six hours, 36 minutes under the brutal English sun. At one point, Anderson fell and was forced to play the point left-handed as he scrambled to his feet, no small issue for a right-handed player. He won the point anyway.
The two players provided great drama in a see-saw match that seemed at times like it would never end. The length of their back-and-forth play kept the Wimbledon audience transfixed. Those tennis fans, unlike the proprietors of American baseball, were not concerned with pace of play.
Wimbledon has seen some great matches and great players like Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi. The show Anderson put on against Isner ranks with any of them.
That compelling match was memorable but nothing compared to what Serena Williams did in what was perhaps the most heroic two weeks of tennis that Wimbledon has ever witnessed.
As she approaches age 37, ancient for a world class tennis player, Williams laid claim to being perhaps the greatest female athlete of her time. Ten months after a difficult pregnancy and complicated recovery with numerous health issues and several surgeries, Serena merely reached the championship match.
She ran out of steam, losing the final in straight sets to Angelique Kerber, who was working on her own comeback story. Winning or losing the last match hardly mattered for Williams. Being there, being on Centre Court in that moment, after the year she has endured, was a statement for every working mother.
When Williams returned to the Grand Slam circuit for the French Open, she was widely dismissed, far down in the rankings. Her 23 Grand Slam titles notwithstanding, tennis is a what-have-you-done-lately sport and Williams lately had been concentrating on motherhood and regaining her health. She proved at Wimbledon that she achieved both and is back in tennis’ mainstream.
What went on with Kevin Anderson and Serena Williams at Wimbledon screamed out at how compelling tennis can be when played by the best players in the world. It produced the perfect appetizer for what should be a memorable 50th anniversary U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows at the end of summer.