It was Tuesday afternoon amid the grandeur of
The No. 1 Court was packed for the occasion. People knew this was special. It was High Noon in London. Call it the Shootout at SW19.
How often do you get a day starting with a deciding fifth set? Or a deciding fifth set that involves a top-seeded and thoroughly frustrated
When darkness sent them home, Anderson had gotten his first serve in at an astonishing 77% rate and had won the point when he did so a more astonishing 87%. The ace count was equally eye-opening: Anderson had 32, Djokovic 10.
The South African had won the first two sets in tiebreakers — including the second set, when Djokovic led in the tiebreaker, 4-0 — and was smiling confidently.
To Djokovic's credit, he did not fold. But then, when you are No. 1, you cannot even entertain that thought. The edge came off Anderson's game a tad, Djokovic got some rhythm and momentum back, and the next two sets were his, 6-1, 6-4.
But Mother Nature got the final word. It was almost 9:30 p.m., and even in these Northern reaches in the summer the sun does eventually go down. They already had played 3 hours and 4 minutes.
That left Djokovic with a night of things to ponder, including all that had gone wrong. That's a tough situation for a player with unfinished business.
He had scooted through the first three rounds, and that had to be healing after his disappointment in the last Grand Slam tournament, the
An entire night to think about more aces from Anderson was certainly not what Djokovic wanted.
He was facing the prospect of failing to get to a Grand Slam quarterfinal for the first time in 25 majors, an incredible testimonial to his consistency. Anderson had a different sort of consistency going. He was trying to make it into a Grand Slam quarterfinal for the first time in 26 tries.
Weighing most heavily on Djokovic had to be that Wimbledon remains the only place where they still play out deciding sets, rather than settling them with tiebreakers. If Anderson didn't falter on his serve, and Djokovic remained stubborn, they could be out there all day.
And the winner, having already forfeited his day of rest, would have to play big-serving, big-hitting
Djokovic and Anderson took the court with a dark cloud hovering overhead. They flipped the coin and the rain began. All around the cloud were blue skies and sunshine, so this wouldn't be a long delay. But it was just long enough to get moisture on the grass to slicken the surface for big serves.
Just what Djokovic didn't need.
When they returned, Djokovic looked like a caged animal. He fidgeted and paced. Anderson sat on his chair and made him wait.
Anderson served first and held with three aces. Would this end before Friday?
The first real danger came with Djokovic serving at 1-2. He hit a forehand long for 15-40. That's two break points that were, in this case, almost the same as match points.
But Anderson, whose ranking has gone to a career-best No. 14, momentarily reverted to a No. 135 guy. He hit a ground stroke long and returned the next serve long. One of the best survivors in the game had survived.
Now, even more animated, Djokovic clenched fists and lectured himself. After a winning shot, he turned toward his coaches and let out a sort of primal scream. Nearby was a ball girl, who looked mortified.
"I was yelling at myself," Djokovic said later. "I will find her and apologize."
Anderson started the 5-5 game with a 125-mph service winner. Then he ended a long rally by netting a forehand, a prelude to the collapse.
He double faulted for 15-30, then double faulted for 15-40. Bodies edged forward on stadium seats. This was not the same as Djokovic serving at 15-40 because it was Djokovic returning. Even against this South African tower of power, Djokovic with two shots at it was a Vegas wager.
It took only one.
Anderson tried to yank Djokovic wide to his right and did so, his serve at 121 mph. Djokovic lunged, like a cat pouncing on a mouse, and slapped the return at Anderson's feet. Six-foot-8 does not bend down well.
For all intents, that was it. Djokovic, needing to serve for it, slipped behind, love-30. But he got it to 40-30 and got Anderson to mis-hit a passing shot well long.
Game, set, match. Three hours 47 minutes. A 6-7 (6), 6-7 (6), 6-1, 6-4, 7-5 tale of survival.
"It was one of the most difficult matches in my Wimbledon career," Djokovic said later. "At times, I felt helpless."
Thirty years ago to the day, Boris Becker, Djokovic's coach and chief of sideline brainstorming, won the first of his three Wimbledon titles.
"He'll have a glass of wine," Djokovic said, "I'll have a glass of water and we'll celebrate."
With Anderson finally in his rearview mirror, Djokovic can focus on being Sunday's toast of the town.