Nadal v Djokovic provides the main course after battle of the big servers

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Nadal v Djokovic provides the main course after battle of the big servers

John Isner will play no-Trumps but a lot of aces in his first Wimbledon semi-final on Friday as, despite a cheeky invitation this week from the flagpole-tall American, the president and the first lady will be having afternoon tea with the Queen at Windsor Castle at about the time Big John puts his umpteenth free point past Kevin Anderson.

Isner, at 33 and 6ft 8in, has played the most consistent tennis of his life over the first 10 days of this tournament and declared after beating Milos Raonic in the quarter-finals on Wednesday: “It’s by far the best grand slam I’ve ever played in my career, and I’ve been playing for 11 years. From my very first practice … I knew I was in a good spot. Physically I’ve felt awesome.”

Not only has he cracked 161 aces, more than anyone else and 48 ahead of Anderson, who is no slouch with ball in hand, but he has topped the tournament table for accuracy, landing 405 of 535 first serves in the box, conceded only seven break points and saved them all, way above the average of 64%, and has won all his 95 service games. That is scarily good, especially with the ball arriving at the other end at up to 144mph.

While Trump would have been a distraction in the royal box – especially if the wind were to cut through his hair spray – the 15,000 sunbathers on Centre Court instead have a double bill of Isner and Anderson at 1pm, followed by the main course, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

It is fair to say the first semi-final will feature less subtlety than the second. Neither Isner nor the 6ft 8in South African (who lives in Florida with his American wife and has applied for dual citizenship) will go gently. Anderson has served pretty well, too, though not with quite the non-stop intensity of his friend and rival.

They played each other at college – still the main nursery for professional tennis in the United States – and have met 11 times on the Tour. Isner leads their head-to-head record 8-3, including their only match on grass, at Queen’s eight years ago, but most of those have been close.

Anderson comes to the final Friday with the biggest possible boost after coming from two sets and match-point down to beat the eight-times champion, Roger Federer, in a heart-stopping match on No 1 Court, the Swiss’s first visit there since 2015. He will probably not want to go back.

Isner and his wife are expecting their first child in September and he says: “There’s a lot of very cool things going on right now, life-changing things.” He said the only time he has played on Centre Court was during the London Olympics, and admitted: “I have no clue what that court looks like. I played Roger in 2012. I can’t really remember it.” He lost in straight sets – with a tie-break, of course.

But, for all that Isner is on a high, literally and figuratively, Anderson’s win over Federer could be the key to this match. It has dramatically boosted the sometimes fragile self-belief of one of the game’s most amenable souls. It will be close – and tough on the backboards.

Nadal is similarly battle-hardened after outlasting Juan Martín del Potro in the best match of the men’s draw so far, a judgment handed down from the BBC commentary box by Andy Murray.

After smoothly slicing through his first four matches the five-set struggle over four hours and 47 minutes, the longest of the tournament, was probably Nadal’s perfect preparation for Djokovic, who will test his stamina and movement in entirely different ways, with swift changes of direction rather than raw power and, if it is singing, his serve.





John Isner celebrates winning his quarter-final against Milos Raonic.



John Isner celebrates winning his quarter-final against Milos Raonic. Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP

It will be their 52nd meeting and, as Nadal reminded everyone, nobody in the game has such a rivalry. Djokovic leads by the single victory.

“It’s always a big challenge to face Novak,” Nadal said (probably for the 51st time). “He is one of the more complex players that I’ve ever seen in our sport.”

He is that – in more ways than one. Djokovic has had the air of a troubled man for most of this tournament and has been reluctant to talk about his serial flare-ups on court, against officials, fans, his box and himself.

But, as he said after bawling and bashing his way past Kei Nishikori in the quarter-finals, he can use that psychological energy to find an edge – yet it did not sound wholly convincing. It is true he is most dangerous when fired up but there are better ways to do that than screaming at the chair umpire or his team.

Still, he has played some superb tennis this fortnight. Murray said the other day it would not surprise him if Djokovic went on to win his fourth singles title here. And he could be right.

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