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The Existential Dread of Tall-Boy Tennis

The Kevin Anderson-John Isner slog was tennis at its absolute worst

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I am curled in a ball in the corner of my couch, trembling. It’s dark. The sun rose long ago; in fact, soon it will begin its descent over the New York City skyline. I’m sure it will be quite beautiful, hues of opalescent orange, yellow, red, and purple, slowly trickling across the blue-gray sky. It usually is. And, tonight … tonight I get to see that sunset. Because it’s over. Mercifully, blessedly, impossibly, Kevin Anderson and John Isner are no longer playing tennis.

Well, that’s not quite right. That wasn’t tennis. That was a slog—a six-and-a-half-hour slog to be exact—in which the two gangliest lads on the ATP tour bludgeoned serve after serve into the frame of each other’s racquets to decide a spot in the finals of the most esteemed tennis tournament on earth. It was fun for a spell, if only because of how evenly matched the two seemed: Each of the first three sets were decided by tiebreak, Isner was moving to net with purpose, and Anderson’s pass game appeared as on point as when he toppled no. 1 seed Roger Federer two days ago. Bradley Cooper even made an appearance (kinda). Yeah, things weren’t so bad. But, quickly, (or, uh, slowly?) matters devolved. Gradually, their plodding strides grew heavier and breakpoints were fewer and farther between, as the two behemoths reserved their energy to hold serve. A thoroughly vexed audience could only watch, helpless and horrified.

By the end of the fifth set—which ended 26-24 in favor of Anderson—Isner couldn’t so much as lift his arm in defense of groundstrokes two steps to his left or right. In the midst of the match’s penultimate game, a routine backhand swing sent Anderson toppling to the grass. In eight separate, herky-jerky motions, the 6-foot-8 South African rose to his feet (all of this during a live rally, mind you), stuck out his left arm, and haphazardly flicked Isner’s next ball back across the net (with a rather cheeky leg flourish to boot). Anderson won the point five shots later.

I mean, what the fuck, man.

Isner is no stranger to this circumstance. If you remember, he was on the winning side of the longest single tennis match in history—defeating Nicolas Mahut 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68 in an 11-hour, five-minute match that spanned three days in the first round of Wimbledon 2010. There were moments when this matchup seemed like it could have given that record a run for its money.

Alas (by the grace of God), Isner-Anderson fell short. But it was a spectacle in its own right—albeit a grotesque one. The match was the second-longest in Wimbledon history, and the longest Centre Court has ever seen. Isner stroked 129 winners to Anderson’s 118. The two combined for 102 aces, and the match featured only 16 breakpoint opportunities. It was a miserable time, the most attritious battle on European soil since World War I (except for Isner-Mahut, I suppose). When Anderson closed out Isner, he could only brush his hat off and let out an exasperated sigh of relief. Same, dude. Same.

Finally, they ceded way for the true main event of the day (the reason I turned on the television in the first place), the other semifinal matchup between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. They’re playing now, and it’s a welcome reprieve from whatever fresh, “Tall-Boy Tennis” hellscape I just spent my entire Friday agonizing over. Hopefully they’ll finish before sunset. But, for now, I need a drink.