June 19, 2011


The match that would never end: Last year's Wimbledon saw the most extraordinary game of tennis in its 125-year history: an epic contest between two relative unknowns that lasted three days, captivated the world, smashed records and - as John Isner and Nicolas Mahut tell GQ - nearly broke its two competitors. (Ed Caesar, 6/03/11, GQ)

Update: in an incredible twist, John Isner and Nicolas Mahut have been drawn against each other again in the opening round of Wimbledon 2011. Ahead of the rematch, read the story of how two little-known tennis players battled for three days in the greatest tennis match of all time. [...]

Mahut served the first ball of the match at 6.13pm, on Tuesday 22 June. The match finally ended at 4.48pm on Thursday 24 June. There were no breaks for rain. The fifth set alone lasted eight hours and eleven minutes, spanned two days and was 98 minutes longer than the previous longest Grand Slam match ever played: Fabrice Santoro's victory over Arnaud Clément at the French Open in 2004. Indeed, for extended periods of that final set between Isner and Mahut - when game after game finished decisively in favour of the server - it seemed not only that the match would never end, but that it could never end. It was in these moments that the contest became more interesting than mere sport. It was between these games that the crowd got the giggles.

When Isner eventually passed Mahut with a double-handed backhand to win 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68, the assembled punditariat naturally reached for the record books. The match was not only, by some distance, the longest ever played, but broke the records for the longest set, the most games in a set (138), most games in a match (183), most aces in a match by one player (Isner: 113), total aces (216), and most points scored (Mahut: 502). My favourite statistic, though, is that in the fifth set, Mahut successfully served to stay in the match 64 games in a row - a display of extraordinary fortitude.

The trouble with these statistics, however, is that they tell only one story: the match was long. The numbers reveal nothing about why Isner and Mahut played as they did, or what demons entered their minds and bodies. They can't relate how, at the end of the second day's play, Isner was so bereft of energy that he briefly desired any kind of conclusion - even a loss - because the prospect of returning to play the following day horrified him. And, of course, the statistics tell you nothing about what has happened to the players since the match. They cannot map the strange and intense kinship these men now feel because of their three-day dance in the London sunshine.

There are many reasons why professional tennis matches do not normally last eleven hours. Most tournament matches are best-of-three sets and include tie-breakers when the games reach six-all in any set. Only three of the Grand Slams - Wimbledon, the French Open and Australian Open - play men's singles and doubles over five sets, with no tie-breaker in the last. But, even at the three Grand Slams where a marathon is technically possible, fifth sets rarely go beyond 20 games. At some point, errors and exhaustion decide the match. But neither Isner or Mahut blinked. To understand how, and why, you need to know the distance they travelled to their mammoth fifth set. As Boris Vallejo, Mahut's affable coach, explains: "nothing comes from nothing."

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Posted by at June 19, 2011 7:35 AM

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