The week in numbers: w/e 4/7/10

Roger Federer

2002 – The last year in which the Wimbledon men’s singles final did not feature Roger Federer.

148 – In mph, the fastest serve recorded in the men’s tournament, by American Taylor Dent. Venus Williams had the fastest serve in the women’s competition, at 128 mph.

75% – Exactly three-quarters (93) of the 124 completed matches in the ladies’ singles were won in straight sets.

129Serena Williams required a total of 129 games to win the ladies’ singles tournament, nine fewer than were played in the fifth set of the match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut alone.

516 – Williams spent a total of 516 minutes on court in her seven singles matches, which was just 25 minutes longer of the final set of Isner v Mahut, and 2 hours and 29 minutes less than that match in total.

100.1 – According to Sky TV’s speed gun, the speed of the fastest ball (in mph) bowled by Australia‘s Shaun Tait in Saturday’s one-day international against England.(Hawk-Eye measured the same ball at 97 mph, though.)

Fabian Cancellara

53.4 – In kph, the average speed of Fabian Cancellara, winner of the 8.9 km prologue time trial at the Tour de France on Saturday.

4 – It is the fourth time the time trial specialist Cancellara has won the opening stage of the Tour, and his third win in a row when the initial stage has been a short time trial (2007, 2009, 2010).

133 – There have been 133 goals in 60 games so far in the football World Cup, an average of 2.22 per game. If there are eight or fewer goals in the last four games of the tournament, it will be the lowest scoring World Cup in history in terms of average goals per game – currently the 1990 edition in Italy, which saw 142 goals at an average of 2.21 per game.

30.8% – Just 520 of 1689 shots so far in the World Cup have been on target, underlining the difficulties faced by attacking sides this summer.

(Some statistics courtesy of @optajim and Castrol Live Tracker.)

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.

Isner and Mahut court history in 10-hour Wimbledon epic

John Isner (image courtesy of Emmett Hume)

With the bulk of my attention focussed on the World Cup, I have maintained little more than a watching brief on Wimbledon so far. But what a three days it has been so far, with major upsets, near misses and perhaps the single most remarkable match in the long history of the sport in the first round tie between the American John Isner and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut.

Already during three days of gloriously sunny action, Wimbledon has witnessed the first round departure of French Open ladies’ champion Francesca Schiavone (only the second time this has ever happened. We have seen defending men’s champion Roger Federer produce a stirring recovery from two sets down against Colombian qualifier Alejandro Falla, in which Falla served for the match at 5-4 in the fourth set. Britain’s Anne Keothavong somehow contrived to lose against Anastasia Rodionova despite leading 4-0 in the final set.

The first round match between Isner, the number 23 seed, and Mahut, conqueror of British number two Alex Bogdanovic in the Wimbledon qualifying competition (in a match which went to 24-22 in the final set), looked to be nothing special on paper. Play was suspended on Tuesday evening after nearly three hours’ play had seen the pair split the first four sets. They returned yesterday afternoon to start the fifth set – and left seven hours and eight minutes later when failing light caused play to be halted with the score level at 59 games all in the final set.

Nicolas Mahut (image courtesy of Bruno Girin)

59 games all!

To the very end, an enthralled crowd packed the 782-capacity court 18, with hundreds more looking on from outside, as they will no doubt do when play recommences on the same court – what a shame that the most talked-about match of the tournament so far will not conclude on one of the show courts! – some time this afternoon. (The match is third on the scheduled order of play, presumably to give the players a fighting chance of recovery.)

The quality of play even in the final hour remained surprisingly high, although understandably there were few long rallies as both players sought to dose the little remaining energy they had left. Mahut, in fact, seemed relatively sprightly and looked by far the more likely winner, whereas Isner was slowing things down and looking heavy even as he trudged from one side of the baseline to the other between serves. But any criticism of either player would, of course, be churlish. Far better to review some of the numbers pertaining to this incredible match, which tell a story all their own.

The match has already encompassed 163 games – and will reach at least 165 (unless one player withdraws injured) – making it by far the longest match ever in terms of games played. By comparison, Serena Williams required only 146 to win all seven of her matches in claiming the ladies’ singles title last year. And the longest previous match at Wimbledon between Pancho Gonzales and Charlie Pasarell, which took place in 1969 before the introduction of tie-breaks, finished 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9 to Gonzales, a mere trifle at 112 games.

The previous longest match in terms of duration took place at the French Open in 2004, when Fabrice Santoro beat Arnaud Clement after six hours and 33 minutes. Isner v Mahut currently weighs in at nine hours and 57 minutes, with the final set at seven hours and eight minutes and counting – more than half an hour longer than the entire Santoro v Clement match. This also makes the match longer than the shortest completed cricket Test match on record, which according to Cricinfo required just 537 minutes of playing time.

Isner has served a total of 98 aces; Mahut 95. Both have smashed the previous record of 78 aces in a single match, achieved by Ivo Karlovic in a Davis Cup tie in 2009.

At the end of an exhausting day, both players gave their views on the match, fully aware that we will probably never see anything like it again.

Mahut said:

We’re fighting like we have never done before. We’ll come back tomorrow and see who is going to win this match. Everyone wants to see the end.

Isner added:

He’s serving fantastic. I’m serving fantastic. Nothing like this will ever happen again.

Whoever wins tomorrow will eventually play Holland’s Thiemo De Bakker in the second round. His first round match only required him to play for just over four hours before outlasting Santiago Giraldo 16-14 in the fifth set.

No doubt those who are concerned about tournament logistics or the adverse impact such a long match would have on a player’s ability to recover for subsequent rounds will see this as an argument for introducing final set tie-breaks at Wimbledon. I say: who cares? This match has been brilliant to watch and has, at least briefly, elevated two lesser-known players to virtual demigod status. In seeing both Isner and Mahut continue to battle on in the face of numbing, shattering fatigue, it has given the world the kind of spectacle that shows us just how special top-flight sports – and the people who play them – can be. Give me that over our whining, complaining “I’m so bored, I’ve got nothing to do in the afternoon after training, oh woe is me!” World Cup footballers any day …

The athlete and the artist

The streak ended at 41, but Roger Federer did not allow his run of consecutive wins at Wimbledon to end without a titanic struggle.

Pursuing his sixth consecutive Wimbledon title, Federer found himself face-to-face with Rafael Nadal for the third year running. Not since Borg/McEnroe in the early 80s has there been such a sustained and starkly contrasting rivalry between two players at the very pinnacle of the sport.

Nadal is the great athlete, all bulging muscles and ferocious competitive intensity, with an effective monopoly on clay courts. Federer is the consummate artist, perhaps the last true one in the modern men’s game: his competitive fire burns no less brightly but his muscles are all on the inside, an unprepossessing physique masking a devastating array of tennis shots, in particular a forehand which frequently seems radar-guided, a total package which has rendered him effectively invincible on grass.

Anyone who watched the final – and there were 12.7 million UK viewers at its peak – will know that Nadal took the first two sets despite Federer having more breakpoint opportunities and that, after a rain delay, Federer exhibited a true champion’s heart by repeatedly facing down a series of crises – 0-40 down on his serve midway through the third set, 2-5 and then two championship points down in the fourth set tie-break, 15-40 and 0-30 down in consecutive service games early in the fifth – with a series of blistering aces and winning shots.

A lesser mortal than Nadal – that’s pretty much everyone – would have crumbled in the face of such repeated disappointments. He had put Federer right up against the wall, only to see the Swiss retaliate with possibly his best tennis of the tournament. And yet it is an indomitable spirit as much as his physical and technical skills that makes Nadal such a unique player. In the fifteenth game of the final set, Nadal repeatedly pushed Federer to the brink – three times he engineered a break point only to be firmly repelled, one a passing shot under extreme duress which may well have been the best single stroke of the entire tournament – before finally, almost incomprehensibly, he secured the precious break which allowed him to serve out a 6-4 6-4 6-7 6-7 9-7 victory.

At 62 games and 4 hours 48 minutes, this was the longest men’s singles final ever at Wimbledon. However, the story of the match extends far beyond a single day and mere statistics. Trace a line backwards which begins with the recent French Open final, where Nadal crushed Federer for the loss of only four games (the worst defeat ever for a reigning world number one in a grand slam final). Follow it through the 2007 Wimbledon final, where Nadal stretched Federer to the limit, squandering four break points in the fifth set before succumbing to a defeat which left him in tears in the locker room afterwards. And stop at the 2006 final, where Federer gave the Spaniard, still a novice on the surface, a masterclass in grass-court play in a four-set win.

With each passing year, Nadal has gradually added artistry to his athleticism: a greater variety of serve, solid volleying technique, the blocked service return. With each passing year, he has been better equipped to challenge Federer. And now he has finally defeated the master – and deservedly so.

Ultimately, Nadal won Wimbledon because he was able to learn from Federer’s artistry and ally it with his unparalleled athleticism.

It was an honour to watch Sunday’s match, even from a distance. But it has been an even greater privilege to see Nadal’s development over the past three years into a player who is truly capable of winning all four Grand Slam events, a feat which has been beyond Federer and, indeed, all male players with the exception of Andre Agassi over the past 40 years.

If that isn’t a scary enough proposition, bear in mind that Nadal only turned 22 last month. He is only going to get better.

Is this really equality?

It was announced today that Wimbledon will for the first time this summer offer the same prize money for female players as it does for the men.

So we now have parity in financial terms. But does this really represent true equality?

In modern times, there has always been a natural inequality at the four Grand Slam tournaments (Wimbledon, and the Australian, French and US Opens), by virtue of the fact that men’s matches are played to a best-of-five sets format, whereas the ladies play best-of-three. This means a one-sided ladies’ match can be over in 45 minutes – and rarely lasts more than two hours – whereas a men’s match can go on for four hours or more, and rarely lasts less than two hours.

Put another way, the winner of the women’s singles title at this year’s Wimbledon will play a maximum of 21 sets (and a minimum of 14) in the tournament, whereas the men’s champion will play a minimum of 21 (and a maximum of 35) to win the same prize money.

It’s not the fairest and most direct of comparisons, but one could say that this is equivalent to a women are being paid the same for a three-day week as their male counterparts are for a full five-day week.

In the workplace, there is certainly no reason why women should earn less than men. However, sport is another matter, where commercial drivers dictate the size of the prize. In virtually all other sports it is normal for female players to earn less (usually far less) than males. This is simply because interest in women’s football or golf or cricket is tiny compared to the men’s equivalents – and consequently attract smaller audiences and commercial revenue. For women’s tennis, this is emphatically not the case. Viewing figures for women’s tennis are comparable to men’s. And Maria Sharapova is every bit as popular and marketable as the likes of Roger Federer. So in the case of tennis, there is no overriding financial reason why women shouldn’t have the right to earn as much as the men.

So, the question is: why don’t women play best-of-five in the Grand Slams? Play the same amount as the men – earn the same amount as the men. It seems like a simple equation, doesn’t it?

After all, in many other sports, women compete over the same time-span as men: ladies’ golf tournaments are frequently played over 72 holes, women’s football matches last 90 minutes, and so on.

Historically, the biggest argument against five-set women’s tennis was the physical capability of women to play longer matches in tournaments. This may have been the case in the past – as it was in athletics as 30 years ago, where women could not compete in endurance events such as the 5,000 metres or marathon – but is not necessarily so today. Now, top players like Amelie Mauresmo or Venus Williams possess just as much strength and stamina as their male counterparts, in a way that was perhaps not the case 30 years ago.

So why don’t women play over five sets at Wimbledon? Or, at the very least, play the ladies’ final over the longer span?

It’s a question which has been argued circuitously (and inconclusively) by wiser and more knowledgeable minds than mine. But while I applaud the equality in prize money which Wimbledon has finally bowed to today, I find myself scratching my head at the inequality this appears to have created for the men’s game.

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