Familiar marquee names and their drama filled the headlines at Wimbledon this year: Roger Federer’s fall from grace, Serena Williams’s continued dominance, Rafael Nadal’s swashbuckling brilliance. Even the Queen put in an appearance, a royal first in 33 years.
Yet amid all the star power, this year’s championship found its defining moment in a first-round match, far from the spotlight, between two unknown players.
The contest between John Isner of the U.S. and France’s Nicolas Mahut was considered nondescript enough to be placed on Court 18, a minor show court 100 yards from Centre Court that holds just 782 seats. The match began on the second day at 6:13 p.m. Two days later the players were still going, and more than 2,000 watched from nearby Henman Hill on a screen. Isner eventually prevailed 70-68 in the fifth set of an epic encounter that lasted 665 minutes, took 183 games, and featured 192 aces (all records).
By the time the two men exchanged the weariest of hugs at the net, the game had gone into the record books as one of the most remarkable in tennis history. With such adventures on the sidelines, there was evidence enough to suggest that this was going to be far from a normal Wimbledon fortnight.
And so it proved. Federer’s streak of 23 straight Grand Slam semifinals came crashing to a halt against the Czech Republic’s Tomas Berdych in the quarters, ending the Swiss master’s hopes of adding a seventh Wimbledon crown.
And while Serena Williams swept to her 13th Slam overall, the women’s event was highlighted by unknowns Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic and Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria, as both made the semifinals.
In this strangest of tournaments, Rafael Nadal was a beacon of normalcy. After being extended to five sets in the second and third round, the Spaniard swept through the later rounds to clinch his second Wimbledon triumph. Nadal was too strong for Berdych in the final, and this victory was the turning point in a year that saw him once again establish himself as the best in the world.
Among the armchair spectators, though, the Isner-Mahut pairing pulled in double the search queries of Nadal-Berdych. Indeed, that epic back-and-forth between two (comparatively) ordinary men drew more online attention than either of the finals. Greatness depends on how you measure it.