Stay Tuned... There's More To Come
June 23, 2010 -- A full moon could have helped explain it. A full lunar eclipse would have been the definitive argument. But neither phase of lunar activity hung in the heavens. Instead, on a pleasantly sunny day, early summer 2010, at The All England Club during this year's Wimbledon Championships the longest match in tennis history -- and probably the greatest match in tennis history -- played on and on and on until it was suspended due to darkness tied at 59-59 in the fifth set.
It was the second day of this match, and the second time it was halted because the light had faded.
On Tuesday, when American John Isner (#19 seed) and qualifier Nicolas Mahut began their epic battle, no one paid particular attention to the fact that these two would have to return Wednesday and finish up their business. It happens. The courts at the prestigious setting don't have stadium lights, except Centre Court. No tournament director in their right mind was going to propose that these two gentlemen pick up their goody bags of equipment and whatnot and haul it, along with their entourage of support, over to the enclosed show court just to finish a match they could easily put to bed on Wednesday.
Not so young whippersnappers.
Wednesday's epic has now turned into Thursday's showdown, almost as if these men and the scene have turned into a sports soap opera. 'Will John break the solid serving of Mahut? Will Mahut's brilliant serve-and-volley tactic perplex the gangly Isner enough to wobble his knees? Will they be able to walk tomorrow, for goodness sakes?'
At 50-49 the chair umpire announced the score with as much drama as he could muster. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.
People around the world had stopped working. People bet on the total number of games for the fifth set. All the while these two men spilled their guts on the lovely grass at Wimbledon.
Both were silently bound not to display any sign of fatigue. If they had their opponent would notice. And if they noticed they might have an edge. Therefore, they walked along the baseline from point to point without a stretch of their arms, a wince on their face, or a groan of any volume.
And the points they played were quality points. How in the world Nicolas Mahut could serve-and-volley on second serves goes beyond the universe's sense of order. How their arms stayed attached from ace after ace shocks the mind.
They stayed so close in score because they both serve well and neither could get an advantage on returns. They stayed so close in score because neither man's pride would let them down. They stayed so close in score because the mind and body work in mysterious ways we will never completely understand -- the conundrum of adrenalin and its chemical effects on the body expanding the outer limits of ultra-sporting activity.
John Isner appeared more fatigued than Mahut, as 59-59 approached. His cheeks were flushed, his hat sat on his head a bit crooked. Mahut's eyes seemed glassy, but perfectly focused. They wiped sweat off their brows, a good indication they continued to perspire -- their bodies cooling system intact.
"It's surreal." That's how John Isner's coach Craig Boynton explained it, immediately following the suspension of play and before Isner and Mahut had left the court.
"Everyone wants it to be over, but we have to come back tomorrow," Mahut said to an on-court reporter. "We're fighting like we never did before. The crowds are fantastic."
They wanted more. But they witnessed the best of the best, and the longest of the longest that will ever be written in a Bud Collins tennis history book.
The match has broken every conceivable record. In total, so far, it's duration is 9 hours and 58 minutes, 7 hours and 6 minutes of them played today in the fifth set alone. The previous record for the longest match in tennis history dates back to 1969 -- 112 games made that entire match. The fifth set alone today was 118 games.
Isner has chalked up 98 aces, so far. Mahut has 94. Isner hit 70 of those in the fifth set, where Mahut slammed 68 in the fifth. Big Ivo Karlovic set the previous record of 78 aces in 2007. You almost want to say, 'what a loser,' but tennis etiquette shuns such low-class humor.
"Nothing like this will ever happen again," Isner said on court.
"I have almost no words anymore watching this," Roger Federer said, smiling in wonderment. "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."
And it's not over yet.