Over But Never Forgotten
June 24, 2010 -- John Isner and Nicolas Mahut arrived on Court 18 at 15:30 GMT -- smack dab on time. Day three of their epic match loomed. Swarms of people cocooned the two men as they walked toward their destinies: Wimbledon police, private and tournament security, and those desperately trying to catch a close-up glimpse of either man. Here they were, once again, on their way to battle.
Fans staked their seats early on in the day. They chatted with their fellows to their left and right about yesterday's thriller, or where they were when it was called for darkness, or who they speculated would win today -- or the possibility that it might extend to Friday.
The atmosphere was festive with a scoop of nerves thrown on top -- the cream for the strawberries.
Craig Boynton poked at his Blackberry -- he must have thousands of messages. Hundreds of requests for an interview. His life forever altered by an event that could be described as otherworldly.
Boynton will be remembered as John Isner's coach the year Isner and Mahut played the longest match in history on the hallowed grounds of The All England Club, in 2010, during The Champions Wimbledon. Could anything be better than that for Craig Boynton?
Books would be written about the match, perhaps in the tradition of Levels Of The Game by John McPhee, the story of the semifinal match between Americans Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner at the very first U. S. Open in 1968 -- the dawn of The Open Era. L. Jon Wertheim jumped on McPhee's narrative style of match story telling and wrote the book Strokes of Genius that weaves biographical bits with match details from the 2008 final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Funny how the 2008 Federer, Nadal match was characterized then as the greatest match ever played and the Isner, Mahut match has outdone that spectacle just two years on. Records in tennis should stand for years unlike records at a swim meet that are broken by hundredths of a second every time an event is run.
Today, once again, chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani presided over the match, as he had the two previous days. He took to his perch, watching Mahut and Isner take their prerequisite five-minute warmup. 'One minute,' he warned the players. 'Time.'
The first game was Isner's to serve. Both players were well aware of this game's import. Slip slightly here, in game number one at 59-59, and Mahut would serve for the match -- just like that. Poof... the opportunity vaporized.
Isner double faulted. It was his tenth double fault of the match. He strode to the add side of the court. His face revealed nothing about the less-than-perfect start. Here was a man who had served 59 games without being broken. One double fault wouldn't set him off, unless his mind was unsure.
He missed the third serve, too, but hit his 99th ace on the fourth. There was chatter that it might be out. But it was called good. A questionable call wasn't going to mess up the unfolding drama.
Isner held... 60-59.
Mahut held easily, looking as if he'd slept like a baby and hadn't missed a beat. But he had only slept three hours last night. Isner got four hours.
And on it went, the big question being who would break. It'd be the first of the set and the beginning of the end unless one broke back, which wasn't very likely. Commentators hung their hopes and their listeners' hopes on any point that seemed remotely significant. The script hadn't changed since yesterday.
Roger Federer told the press that unfortunately in tennis there is no tie. Someone has to win. Someone has to lose.
For the entire fifth set, Nicolas Mahut served from behind. And like Isner he faced the pressure and evened the score.
But at 68-69 he didn't. On the last point Mahut served and approached, and Isner passed the Frenchman with a backhand down-the-line winner.
John Isner tossed his racquet in the air and fell on his back. Relief had arrived. He had won this epic -- 64 36 67 (7) 76 (3) 70-68 -- in 11 hours and five minutes, over three days. It's a wonder he could stand up.
There were only three breaks of service through the entire match. Isner broke Mahut way back on Tuesday in the first set, which gave him the lead. Mahut broke Isner in the next set, which leveled the match. That was it for breaks of serve until John Isner struck the last ball.
Ironically, this was John Isner's first-ever win at The Championships Wimbledon. He had mono last year and lost in the first round in 2008. What a way to introduce yourself to the world of Wimbledon.
Standing outside the ring of stats and peculiarities of this match, you have to consider how tennis got to this height -- a five set match of this magnitude. The answers would shine a light on why several early-rounds matches have gone the distance.
Roger Federer took himself to the brink in round one against a sharp Columbian named Alejandro Falla, a man that had never taken a set off Federer. Rafael Nadal battled for five sets against Robin Haase today in their second round match before heading to the locker room. Twenty-one year old Alexandr Dolgopolov stretched 10th seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to five sets, too, Tsonga winning 8-6 in the fifth today. It was the young Ukranian's first Wimbledon and only his second major, the first being this year's French Open.
Nicolas Mahut played like a champion against Isner; and, he arrived on Court 18 Tuesday after three rough rounds of qualification. He won the second round 36 63 24-22, against Alex Bogdanovic of Great Britian. Then, in the third and final round he battled Stefan Koubek to win in, quite fittingly, five sets. Mahut was mentally prepared to go the distance, if that could ever be foreseen.
Fitness and mental strength pulled both players through this fantastic competition. One point at a time. Move forward. Steady. Take care of your own serve, as did Pete Sampras know how to do. Let go... at some point they left normal antics of the mind and played. "One with the ball" as Tim Gallwey wrote in his sentinel bestseller The Inner Game of Tennis.
John Isner didn't play the warm-up tournament in Eastbourne, England. Instead, he opted to spend a week in Tampa, Florida, at Saddlebrook, his training home.
"Physically I have put in the work. I put in the long hours. It was a hundred degrees and a hundred percent humidity. I got in pretty good shape. My coach, actually, believe it or not, said jokingly before the tournament started that I'll be able to play ten hours. After practicing in that heat, he was right."