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Isner, Mahut make history at Wimbledon
Already it has become, quite possibly, the most extraordinary tennis match ever played — and it is not over.
John Isner and Nicolas Mahut have been trying to reach the second round of Wimbledon for two days and the score — read it carefully — stands at 4-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-7, 59-59.
Play began Wednesday with a fifth set that was eventually suspended because of fading light after 7 hours, 6 minutes on court. In total the match has been in play for exactly 10 hours. Already this match has made a mockery of any record that has ever been set in the entire history of the game. It is very rare for a sport to have its record books shredded quite so comprehensively in one afternoon. But before we get into the stats let us pay tribute to two quite extraordinary athletes who, incredibly, improved the level of their play as the match went on and showed a focused fortitude of mind and body that left their peers open-mouthed in amazement.
John McEnroe, talking on BBC television, said, “This is the greatest advertisement for our sport. It makes me proud to be a part of it. We often don’t get the respect we deserve in tennis for the athletic demands it places on players but this should push that respect way up.”
McEnroe, always contrary, willl be one of those calling for Wimbledon to use the tiebreak in the fifth set as happens at the U.S. Open but not the other Grand Slams. That is unlikely to happen, not least because as Isner said on leaving the court, “nothing like this will ever happen again.”
Wimbledon's epic match is the longest in history. Here are the longest contests from other sports.
• NCAA football: Nov. 3, 2001, 7 OT. Ole Miss and Arkansas were tied 17-17 after 4 quarters. Arkansas won 58-56.
• NBA: Jan. 6, 1951, 6 OT. The Indianapolis Olympians beat the Rochester Royals 75 – 73 after 78 minutes of game time.
• NHL: March 24, 1936, 6 OT. Game 1 of the semifinal round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs between Detroit and Montreal ended when Detroit's Mud Bruneteau scored the game's only goal after 176 minutes and 30 seconds of play.
• MLB: May 9, 1984, 25 innings, 8 hours and 6 minutes. The Chicago White Sox and the Milwaukee Brewers started play on May 8.. According to MLB rules an inning cannot begin after 12:59 AM so the players and fans had to come back the next day. Chicago won 7- 6 on Harold Baines' home run.
• NCAA basketball: March 12, 2009, 6 OT. Syracuse beat Connecticutt In a Big East tournament game, 127-117. This game broke the records for points scored by a team in OT (56 by Syracuse) and for the combined points scored in OT (102 combined).
Mahut, a 28-year-old qualifier ranked No. 148 in the world, was the one who wanted play to stop because he said he was having trouble seeing the ball. That was unexpected because the lithe Frenchman was still racing about court as if the match was in the first set while Isner, struggling with his 6-foot-9 frame, looked out on his feet.
“But he’s a champ,” said Mahut. “We keep fighting like we have never fought before.”
It will not go unnoticed in France that if the French soccer team had shown a quarter of the fighting spirit displayed by their hitherto unheralded compatriot, they might still be in the World Cup. Mahut, it must be remembered, was serving behind. In the fifth set, that places a great deal more mental strain on a player than the one serving ahead. A break of serve is fatal for the former while the latter at least has a chance to break back.
But breaking serve was not on the agenda during this unforgettable afternoon on Court 18, a small arena backed up against the broadcasting building that has seats for a few thousand spectators while others can peer over from the adjacent roof. Isner never had to face a break point on his serve during the entire set while Mahut had to dig himself out of four match points — one at 9-10, two at 32-33 and another at 58-59.
But he never faltered. The first was saved by an ace, the second by a forehand volley, the third when Isner missed a backhand and the fourth as night closed in with his 95th ace.
Isner was no less secure on his serve on the rare occasions that Mahut pushed him to deuce. He always had another ace up his sleeve and finished the night with 98. The quality of both men’s serving was astounding. But there were other qualities to admire too as the warm sun faded and the shadows crept across the court.
No one at these championships has volleyed with such crisp certainty as Mahut, who went in behind his serve far more often than Isner. But the American earned his opponent’s respect by the way he still managed to crack forehand winners to all parts of the court even though, during the last hour, his long legs were barely able to raise a gallop.
“I hope there is a doctor at courtside,” said McEnroe. “I think Isner’s delirious. Mahut looks unbelievably fresh.”
But the man out of the University of Georgia, who stayed in college because he didn’t think he was ready for the pro tour, knew exactly what he was doing and never allowed Mahut to get a consistent crack at his amazing serve.
The bare bones of the statistics means that record books will have to be completely re-written. This is already the longest match in the history of tennis, eclipsing the 6 hourrs, 33 minutes Arnaud Clement — who was playing here today — spent on court against Fabrice Santoro in the first round of the French Open in 2004. McEnroe himself had played 6 hours, 22 minutes against Sweden’s Mats Wilander in a Davis Cup tie in 1982.
The previous longest fifth set in a Grand Slam was a puny 21-19 when Andy Roddick beat Younes El Aynaoui at the 2003 Australian Open, although John Newcombe and Marty Riessen did play a 25-23 fourth set (which Newcombe won) at the 1969 U.S. Open.
And the previous longest match in terms of games played was 112, when Pancho Gonzalez beat Charlie Pasarell in the first round of Wimbledon in 1969. Isner and Mahut have already played 163.
And the aces record has been snatched from the grasp of Croatia’s Ivo Karlovic, the only man on tour who is taller than Isner. Karlovic held the Grand Slam record of 51 and the overall record of 78, which he managed in a Davis Cup tie against the Czech Republic. Both Isner and Mahut have left that far behind.
Unlike McEnroe, Roger Federer, ever the traditionalist, will not be calling for a fifth-set rule change.
“I think it’s perfect the way it is,“ he said after struggling a bit to beat a little known Serb, Ilija Bozoljac. “This is absolutely amazing.”
Some matches finish quickly. Others never end.
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