This time, the heroic comeback would be cut short. Andy Murray contorted through all the roars and grimaces, the angry monologues and chest-beating he’s made so torturously iconic, but there would be no glory to make good of the pain. The 35-year-old’s spirit was as indomitable as ever, rallying from two sets down against John Isner as the light faded and the roof closed over Centre Court, but the American harnessed the hostile atmosphere and weathered a momentous fightback to close out a 6-4 7-6 6-7 6-4 victory that lasted almost three and a half hours.
This was a different and perhaps a more depressing kind of defeat than what Murray endured last year. Then, it was the fearless youth and aggression of Denis Shapovalov that put into sharp relief the years and strength lost to injury. But Isner is an old foe, one who Murray had found a way to subdue and defeat in all of their eight previous meetings, a record stretching back as far as 2010. It felt almost assured that Murray’s variety, invention and iron will would eventually outlast a player who can throw a ball up to the gods and return Thor’s Hammer like no other.
Isner’s impenetrable serve will always be best remembered for his 11-hour marathon match here against Nicolas Mahut, but it was hard to recall a time when it has been quite so relentlessly precise as this. He gave up just two break points throughout the entire match and summoned a remarkable 36 aces, puncturing the atmosphere whenever pressure swelled, but it would be unfair to reduce his efforts to just one dimension. The 37-year-old’s volleying was exquisite, 81 winners were testament to his aggression and whether it was that inspired masterclass or the fine margins Murray has lost to age, another miracle was not forthcoming.
It is as if every Murray match is now preordained to be a war between mind and body, a gauntlet run on tired fibres and grating hips always fought uphill. They moved unconvincingly in his first-round victory over Jack Duckworth and so there could no great deal of surprise when Murray ceded the first set again here.
In an ominous foreshadowing of what was to come, Isner’s serve tipped 137mph in the opening game, eliciting horrified gasps from the crowd. Even for Murray, whose anticipation can mask waning reflexes, it demanded a period of adjustment and the 20th seed took advantage, charging into the net behind fierce returns against Murray’s meeker serve. He broke at the first opportunity, sparking Murray into a familiar self-flagellating rhythm behind the baseline, punching his thigh and glaring at his box as though ready to disown them.
If it can feel a little contrived at times, it still galvanises Murray to great effect. He pre-empted Isner’s serve excellently the following game, deflecting the power and disguising drop shots that made his 6ft 10ins opponent look gangly and uncoordinated. But facing down two break points, Isner delivered two more aces and his first serve refused to afford another opportunity. By the time the American closed out the first set 6-4, he’d missed just eight in total.
For a long while, it seemed there was nothing Murray could do to deter Isner’s rhythm. The 37-year-old won 11 of the next 13 points on his serve, six of them aces and two unreturned. Murray vented his ire towards his box, but this was a riddle that players have struggled to solve for over a decade when Isner is in full flow.
Murray faced pressure on his own serve but handled it with aplomb, the more controlled when long rallies ensued, arrowing backhand winners down the line and punching the air in approval. But chances were still few and far between and he covered his face in horror after missing the next backhand at 15-30 on Isner’s serve. The door closed and two more huge serves bolted it shut. With nothing to give, the pair went to a tie-break but still Isner wouldn’t budge as two booming service winners clinched it 7-4 to go two sets up.
The least Murray has always guaranteed is that he will go down fighting. But at 2-3 in the third, a shift in momentum threatened to become a false dawn after Murray held serve with a blistering forehand and demanded an encore from Centre Court. The crowd promptly erupted but whatever fire that was lit was quickly silenced by another impervious Isner service game.
Another tiebreak beckoned and, after Isner inexplicably blazed a forehand long on the opening point, even the American’s metronomic serve couldn’t hold back the tide. Errors crept into his groundstrokes, his volley faltered and the atmosphere swallowed him up. By the time his framed forehand hit the tramline, Murray was already leaping through the air and thrashing a fist against the sky.
Isner had to weather that storm at the start of the fourth, but the American’s serve returned to being relentlessly true, even if Murray managed to make more insurgences into each game. It was Isner who earned the decisive break, capitalising on a dreadful lapse in concentration as Murray yanked a simple would-be winner backhand into the net. The frustration carried into the next point and another unforced error handed Isner a clear route to victory.
The decision to close the roof after Isner consolidated that break to take a 4-2 lead was questionable, disrupting the momentum Isner had fought so hard to regain, but his serve rescued him again at 0-30 as three aces once again had Murray gesturing in despair. This time, no matter how hard he tried, there was no amount of spirit remaining to forge another final stand. Three aces brought up three match points, an ending as coldly emphatic as its beginning.