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.
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.
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 …