Isner, Mahut play marathon match at Wimbledon

By: Associated Press Email
By: Associated Press Email

WIMBLEDON, England -- Even the scoreboard couldn't keep up.

The electronic sign keeping track courtside as the points passed and the game totals rose went blank while 23rd-seeded John Isner of Tampa, Fla., and qualifier Nicolas Mahut of France played -- and played and played -- the longest match in tennis history, until action was suspended because of darkness at 59-59 in the fifth set Wednesday night at Wimbledon.

"Nothing like this will ever happen again. Ever," Isner said in a courtside TV interview.

The first-round match had already been suspended because of fading light Tuesday night after the fourth set.

They have been playing each other for exactly 10 hours -- 7 hours, 6 minutes in the fifth set alone, enough to break the full-match record of 6:33, set at the 2004 French Open.

Never before in the history of Wimbledon, which was first contested in 1877, had any match -- singles or doubles, men or women -- lasted more than 112 games, a mark set in 1969. Isner and Mahut have played more games than that in their fifth set, without a victor, although the American came close: He had four match points but Mahut saved each one.

"He's serving fantastic. I'm serving fantastic. That's really all there is to it," Isner said. "I'd like to see the stats and see what the ace count looks like for both of us."

Well, here they are: Isner has 98 aces, Mahut 95 -- both eclipsing the previous high in a match at any tournament, 78. All the numbers are truly astounding: There have been 881 points, 612 in the fifth set. Isner has compiled 218 winners, Mahut 217. Isner has only 44 unforced errors, Mahut 37.

And this cannot be emphasized enough: They are not finished.

No one won yet.

The match will continue, stretching into a third day.

"He's just a champ. We're just fighting like we never did before," Mahut said. "Someone has to win, so we'll come back tomorrow and see who is going to win the match."

At 58-all, more than 6½ hours into Wednesday's action, both players took a bathroom break. Not much later, shortly after 9 p.m., Mahut and Isner approached the net to discuss with a Grand Slam supervisor, Soeren Friemel, whether to keep going Wednesday.

"I want to play," Mahut said, "but I can't see."

Fans began chanting, "We want more! We want more!" Then they proposed an idea to organizers, screaming in unison, "Centre Court! Centre Court!" -- the only stadium at the All England Club equipped with artificial lights and therefore the only place play could continue at that hour. When Friemel decided they would stop at that moment and resume Thursday, spectators saluted Isner and Mahut with a standing ovation.

"I have almost no words anymore watching this. It's beyond anything I've ever seen and could imagine. I don't know how their bodies must feel the next day, the next week, the next month. This is incredible tennis," defending champion Roger Federer said. "For them to serve the aces they served and stay there mentally is a heroic effort. As we know, we have no draws in tennis, so there will be a loser. But I guess in this match, both will be winners because this is just absolutely amazing."

Not that anyone will ever remember, because of what happened Wednesday, but for the record, Tuesday's portion of the match went this way: Isner won the first set 6-4; Mahut took the next two 6-3, 7-6 (7); and Isner claimed the fourth 7-6 (3).

That portion lasted 2:54, longer than many entire matches, but these guys were just getting started. The first four sets encompassed a total of 45 games, less than half of the fifth set alone. To put it in some more perspective: The 2009 Wimbledon final between Federer and Andy Roddick was the longest Grand Slam championship match in history, running 77 games in all.

Mahut actually has some recent experience in such matters: He won a four-hour match in the second round of qualifying last week that ended 24-22 in the third set.

Other Wimbledon competitors were glued to locker-room TVs, while some headed out to the court to see if they could catch a glimpse. That was easier said than done, because the stands at the relatively tiny court -- its official capacity is 782 -- were full, and people packed in three-or-more deep along a railing overlooking the action.

"I don't think I'd move. I think if you moved, you lose your seat," Venus Williams said.

"It's a marathon," she added, then corrected herself: "It's longer than a marathon."

Roddick tweeted that it was "unreal."

Isner and Mahut began Wednesday at 2:04 p.m., with Court 18 bathed in sunlight and in heat that topped 80 degrees. As play carried on shadows crept across the court, and the well-manicured blades of green grass along both baselines eroded away, leaving patches of beige dirt in their place.

Organizers moved other matches that were supposed to be played on Court 18, and they also postponed Isner's doubles match that happened to be on Wednesday's schedule.

Because Isner served first in the fifth set, Mahut was faced with the difficult task of always trailing while serving, knowing that if he were to get broken he would lose.

Both players did show momentary signs of fatigue and frustration. Know this: Isner lost his only previous match at Wimbledon, exiting in the first round in 2008, while Mahut lost in the first round at the All England Club each of the past two years.

Seeking some extra energy, Isner wolfed down a sandwich and sipped from a plastic bottle of water during one changeover, and he scarfed down a banana at another. By the end of Wednesday, he was gritting his teeth on serves, rubbing his back between points and occasionally deciding not to chase shots. During one break, Mahut was visited by a tournament doctor and given some pills to swallow and later had a finger taped. After missing one shot, Mahut dropped to his knees and covered his head with both hands.

Even chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani, sitting in his perch long enough to have taken a trans-Atlantic flight, showed signs of fatigue. He tried to stay loose by massing his neck or stretching his legs, and as the match dragged on, Lahyani paused while reciting the score, as if to make sure he had the count correct.

"This is one of the few times where I feel bad for the umpire," noted official-berater John McEnroe joked on BBC's TV coverage.

It might not necessarily have been the most scintillating tennis, given that so many points were so brief, often consisting of merely an unreturned serve, followed by both players shuffling along the baseline to get in position for the next point.

What the match was, without a doubt, was riveting from this standpoint: Who would falter, even for a split-second, on a solitary stroke -- enough to finally turn control of things one way or the other?

Who would wilt first physically or mentally?

"Maybe they should agree to play a tiebreak," 2008 Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic mused.

In sum, it was a test of wills, and of a sort tough to compare to another individual sport -- unless, perhaps, a golf tournament's playoff extended for, say, 36 holes. In team sports, which don't really offer a true analogy, think of it as a baseball game that lasts 50 innings or a basketball game with 15 overtimes.

The longest Major League Baseball game in history lasted 8 hours, 6 minutes, with the Chicago White Sox beating the Milwaukee Brewers 7-6 in 25 innings on May 9, 1984.

And to think: Isner vs. Mahut could have concluded much, much earlier in the day.

Isner held a match point all the way back in the 20th game of the fifth set, when he was ahead 10-9 with Mahut serving. Mahut double-faulted twice to give Isner a break point and match point, but the Frenchman erased it with an ace.

10-10.

Hard to believe, perhaps, but there wasn't another break point or match point for either player until the 66th game of the set, with Isner ahead 33-32.

Isner smacked a backhand return winner down the line to go ahead 15-40, earning two match points, and then waved his right hand to signal to the overflowing crowd to cheer louder. But he couldn't convert either chance. Mahut delivered a volley winner to erase the first and then a service winner on the second.

Two points later, Isner ceded the game by putting a forehand return into the net, prompting some fans backing Mahut to chant, "Nico! Nico! Nico!"

33-33.

In the 71st game, with Isner serving, he faced a deuce. Two more points for Mahut would have allowed the Frenchman to serve for the match. But Isner delivered a second-serve ace at 124 mph, followed by a service winner.

36-35 for Isner.

Mahut earned his first break points of the fifth set in -- believe it or not -- the 101st game, when Isner missed a forehand wide to fall behind 15-40. Isner saved the first with a service winner at 132 mph. On the second, Mahut tried a lob -- perhaps not the ideal strategy against the 6-foot-9 Isner -- and the American hit an overhead winner. Two more service winners ended the game.

51-50 for Isner.

An opening for Isner came in the 108th game, when Mahut missed a backhand, then a forehand, to fall behind 0-30, putting the American two points away from victory. But Mahut came up with a volley winner and then three consecutive aces.

54-54.

In what would wind up being the final game of the day, with Isner ahead 59-58, Mahut's double-fault -- his 21st -- afforded the American one more match point. Mahut delivered again, smacking an ace to get to deuce. Isner then shanked a return long, crouched and bit his white T-shirt. On the next point, Isner's backhand return sailed wide.

59-59.

And that's where they will resume, once more, the 25-year-old Isner and the 28-year-old Mahut, striving to be better than the other just long enough to win.


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