At 33, John Isner Finds New Heights in the Wimbledon Semifinals
John Isner didn’t mind waiting. In this, his 41st Grand Slam event, what was another four hours and 14 minutes?
That was how long Isner had to wait for eighth-seeded Kevin Anderson to knock top-seeded Roger Federer out of Wimbledon in a marathon five-set match. Next up on No. 1 Court was Isner, who had the highlight of his career nearly three hours later: a 6-7(5), 7-6(7), 6-4, 6-3 victory over 13th-seeded Milos Raonic to reach his first Grand Slam semifinal.
Isner described his feeling after the win as “pure elation.”
“With how I’m feeling physically and mentally, I’m in a very good spot; I think I can keep doing damage here,” he said. “This is amazing. It’s by far the best Grand Slam I’ve ever played in my career, and I’ve been playing for 11 years. I’m super happy. To do it here at Wimbledon makes it even a little bit more special.”
After starting his year with a 2-6 record, Isner, 33, has been playing the best tennis of his career. He won his first career Masters title at the Miami Open in early April and rode the momentum here, reaching the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam for the first time in seven years.
Though far from a spring chicken, Isner is part of a wave of players who have exploited the increased number of open pockets in Grand Slam draws as the game’s standard bearers have faltered. He is the seventh first-time semifinalist in the men’s draw of the last five Grand Slam events; in the 10 prior Grand Slam events, there had been only one: Dominic Thiem, at the 2016 French Open. Isner is also just the second American man to reach a Grand Slam semifinal since 2009, after Sam Querrey did so here last year.
Isner, the No. 9 seed, has played comprehensive, dominant tennis in his five matches at Wimbledon; he’s the only player in the men’s or women’s semifinals not to lose a service game. But he also had the benefit of avoiding the highest seeds in his quarter of the draw, with No. 6 Grigor Dimitrov crashing out in the first round and No. 3 Marin Cilic losing in the second.
In the semifinals, Isner will face Anderson, who made his own Grand Slam final debut at last year’s United States Open through an even more fractured draw.
Justin Gimelstob, one of Isner’s coaches, said facing Anderson instead of Federer presented a different type of mental challenge.
“When you play Federer, there’d be less pressure of expectation because everyone just assumes that Roger is great and the best ever, and since you got to the semifinals of Wimbledon, it’s O.K. to lose,” Gimelstob said. “In this match with Kevin, he plays a peer, someone he’s familiar with, and it creates a different emotional dynamic.”
“For me, this matchup — and I think for him as well — is especially cool,” Isner said. “It’s a very nice spotlight on college tennis, that one of us, no matter what, is going to be playing in the Wimbledon final.”
The spotlight was dimmer than usual at Isner’s quarterfinal, though. On a day in which Federer and Rafael Nadal played epic matches, no non-American journalists attended Isner’s news conference. And with England playing a World Cup semifinal Wednesday evening, the crowd inside No. 1 Court was sparse; organizers made the unusual move of opening the stadium up to anyone on the grounds, not just those who had a ticket for that specific court.
Despite the subdued atmosphere, the high-stakes match never lacked intensity. Gimelstob said he was most proud of how Isner’s composure amid the occasion.
“He elevated physically and emotionally,” Gimelstob said. “Instead of wilting and giving into the moment, he embraced it. He loosened up, and his energy and commitment.”
Anderson said he had seen a spike in Isner’s confidence since he won the Miami Open, the biggest title of his career.