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Isner and Mahut think it’s all over: it is now

As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. And so, at 4.48pm yesterday, the record-breaking and fitness-shattering first round men’s singles match between American John Isner and France’s Nicolas Mahut finally drew to a close, with Isner emerging triumphant, 70-68 in the final set.

The label of ‘epic’ is one which is too easily used in sport, but it is entirely fitting here. Over the course of three days, the match had covered 11 hours and five minutes of playing time encompassing a total of 183 games (138 of them in the deciding set).

To put that into some kind of context, consider that the average Wimbledon five-setter will take three to four hours and require 55-60 games. In other words, Isner and Mahut played the equivalent of three five-set matches back-to-back-to-back.

Serena Williams played 146 games in total in winning last year’s ladies’ singles. And Roger Federer required 273 – equivalent to one and a half Isner-Mahut-style matches – in his seven matches in the men’s singles, despite having to play the longest Grand Slam final in history (a mere 77 games) to overcome Andy Roddick.

A few facts and figures:

  • 183 total games – exactly 100 games more than the previous longest match since the introduction of the tie break (Andy Roddick’s 2003 Australian Open quarter-final win over Younes El Aynaoui, which finished 21-19 in the fifth set).
  • The fifth set alone lasted eight hours and 11 minutes, 98 minutes longer than the previous longest official match at the 2004 French Open, when Fabrice Santoro defeated Arnaud Clement after 6 hours and 33 minutes.
  • Isner served 112 aces, Mahut 103 (previous all-time record: Ivo Karlovic, 78).
  • 168 consecutive service holds, from 2-0 in the second set to the final game of the match.
  • 490 total winners.

Defeat was particularly tough on Mahut, who had defeated Britain’s Alex Bogdanovic 24-22 in the third set of their qualifying match. Serving second throughout the final set, it meant that, from 4-5 onwards, it was always he who faced the sudden-death scenario of serving to stay in the match. The fact he achieved it 64 consecutive times before finally succumbing is testament to an extraordinary ability to deal with pressure and sheer bloody-mindedness.

To add insult to injury (or at least fatigue), Mahut was later back on court in the men’s doubles. His partner? Arnaud Clement, the loser in the previous longest-ever match. Sport never ceases to amaze with the delicious ironies it so frequently serves up.

Immediately after the match, both players were presented with crystal bowls and champagne flutes on behalf of the All-England club – a nice touch, although bath salts and a day pass at a spa might have been more appropriate.

Isner said:

What more can you say? The guy [Mahut] is an absolute warrior. It stinks someone had to lose. To share this with him was an absolute honour. Maybe we’ll meet again somewhere down the road and it won’t be 70-68.

Mahut added:

At this moment I’m just really thankful. It was amazing today. John deserved to win. He served unbelievable. It was really an honour to play the greatest match ever at the greatest place for tennis. It was very long but I think we both enjoyed it.

Spare a thought also for Swedish umpire Mohamed Lahyani, who sat in the chair through the entire 11 hours. Three years ago, he was involved in a car accident while officiating in Shanghai when his Chinese driver fell asleep at the wheel. Lahyani suffered whiplash injuries and still receives requires treatment on his neck – a condition particularly unsuited to the work of a tennis umpire.

After the match, Lahyani said:

It has been quite amazing to be involved with such an extraordinary match. I can’t imagine seeing another one like it in my lifetime. I didn’t get a chance to feel tired, I was gripped by the amazing match and my concentration stayed good – I owed that to the players, their stamina was breath-taking and their behaviour exceptional.

When you are so focussed and every point feels like a match point you just don’t even think about eating or needing the bathroom.

On Wednesday my voice did get a little dry, but I have drunk plenty today and it feels good. I travel economy so seven hours sitting still on court is nothing.

Lahyani’s contribution to this extraordinary match was recognised by a congratulatory letter, a set of cufflinks and a club tie. Only at Wimbledon.

The debate about whether Wimbledon should introduce fifth set tie-breaks will no doubt rage for the rest of the tournament. I understand the arguments in favour of this, with concerns over the well-being of players being at the top of the list, not to mention the potential scheduling nightmare such a long match could have created in a week less blessed by fine weather than this one.

For me, the current system of tie-breaks being played at 6-6 in the first four sets, with the fifth set being played to a resolution works just fine. Long final sets which make it beyond, say, 15-15 occur once or at most twice in an average Grand Slam tournament, and provide a sporting spectacle which draws in both fans and casual viewers alike. If Isner v Mahut had finished 7-6 on a fifth set tie-break, it would have been an ordinary event, an ignored footnote in the day’s coverage. A captive audience watching on TV and at court-side would have been denied one of those legendary, once-in-a-blue-moon experiences which sport specialises in.

How would the 1966 World Cup final have been remembered if it had gone straight to penalties at the end of normal time, denying us the dispute over that goal and Kenneth Wolstenholme‘s memorable commentary, which I have shamelessly paraphrased in the title of this post? Would Federer-Roddick in last year’s final be so fondly regarded if it had been 7-6 – it would have been the third tie-break of the final – rather than 16-14 in the concluding set? Yes, both the above examples were great spectacles, but the extension of playing time at the end of both matches made both truly special.

I particularly liked this comment from the Guardian, which summed it all up for me:

This match in one fell swoop reminded people of what sport is supposed to be; intense and competitive, but also with fair play, respect, class and sportsmanship. Isner and Mahut reminded the world that winning might be important, but how one wins is even more so. Today Isner may have scored one more service break than Mahut, but they both, and sport in general, won a much grander victory. These two gentlemen returned class and respect to the field of competition with their sportsmanship, grit, determination and mutual regard for the abilities of their opponent. They were playing for the love of the game, something almost all professional athletes seem to have long ago forgot. In that sense, they won a far more tremendous victory today than simply a tennis match. In ten years, few will likely remember who won this year’s Championships. However, people will be telling their great grand children, who will tell their great grand children, about the day that sport regained its soul.

Finally, John Isner is scheduled to play Thiemo De Bakker in the second round this afternoon, who won his own first round match 16-14 in the fifth set. Settle in, it could be a long one.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

2 Responses to Isner and Mahut think it’s all over: it is now

  1. Pingback: The week in numbers: w/e 4/7/10 « The armchair sports fan

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