August 16, 2022

Amid feverish scenes resembling a reunion of revivalists, Andy Murray did his best to conjure up one last famous late-night miracle on Center Court. But Fathers Day – and the crisp heavy metal tennis of John Isner – offered an overwhelming response.

Then Murray pledged to return to Wimbledon if his creaky 35-year-old body holds up, but he admitted it was not a given. That only made this 6-4, 7-6(4), 6-7(3), 6-4 loss, his first in 14 appearances here, even tougher.

Some of them, however, were beyond his control. For over three hours, his opponent was a gunslinger who refused to miss, crushing an extraordinary 36 aces and 80 winners to secure a deserved victory. “It’s no secret that I’m not a better tennis player than Andy, but maybe I was a bit better today,” he conceded magnanimously. “It was one of the biggest wins of my career.”

As Isner later acknowledged, there’s nothing particularly sophisticated about his game. Still, why reinvent the wheel when you’ve got a service howitzer and a forehand that rips seven nylon strips from the ball? The American could be the tennis equivalent of a garage band who masters three strings. But he still confused Murray with his Blitzkrieg Bop.

“I’ve played against these players many times and found ways to make enough comebacks to turn games around, whether it’s against Karlovic, Isner, Raonic, those kind of guys,” Murray said afterwards. “But tonight he was very close to the lines in the important moments.”

But, as much as it will pain the Wimbledon crowd who have acclaimed him royally over the years, it was Murray who offered a portrait of the entertainer as an older man. Still extremely talented, of course. But a little slower in the eyes, and between the lines. In a game of millimeters and microseconds, that made all the difference.

“I think most players on the Tour would tell you a game like this is won or lost based on a few points here and there,” Murray said. “I didn’t play well enough on those points.”

Previously, the bookies had made Murray, who had won his previous eight contests against Isner, a hot favourite. But he also knew those victories were years ago, before his body collapsed and his hip resurfaced.

Given the supreme difficulty of breaking Isner’s serve, it was vital that Murray got off to a quick start. Instead, he was broken in game three. The Scot immediately had two chances to return the favor, only for Isner to save them – first with a deft volley and then a 128mph first serve. Incredibly, Murray didn’t have another opportunity to break the contest.

John Isner serves for the match against Andy Murray Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

After losing the first set 6-4, Murray leveled off and had a half break chance at 30-15 on Isner’s serve at 5-4 in the second. But then the American hit two exquisite volleys, showing he had a surprisingly good touch for a big man, to hold serve before running away with the tie-break.

Murray was now in dire straits. To add to his woes, Isner was getting 79% of first serves – a staggering percentage considering many were flying over the speed gun at over 130mph – and winning 88% of his first-serve points.

Murray’s best hope now was that his veteran teammate, at 37 and having played in five sets on Monday, could start to feel some lead in his legs. “Come on Andy, he’s older than you!” shouted a wag, but Isner’s serve held firm as we headed for another tie-break.

This time it was Murray who got off to a fast start, racing to a 3-0 lead. And with the crowd pushing him, he was able to capitalize. By now the fans were on their feet and banging the air. Murray couldn’t do it, could he?

But Isner was in no way able to oblige. A break at 2-2 in the fourth set put the game on his racket and he was able to keep his composure even after a delay to close the roof of the stadium.

Murray, meanwhile, was able to hope that this will not be his last day on this most famous of courts. “If physically I am well placed, I will continue to play,” he said. “But it’s extremely difficult with the issues I’ve had with my body over the past few years to make long-term predictions.”

His words sounded bruised and a little dazed. This, however, was normal considering the beatings he had just suffered.