Posted by: mdegeorge | June 23, 2010

The greatest tennis match in history

“Nothing like this will ever happen again ever.”

The words from Michael Isner could not be truer.

The American and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut treated the fans at the Wimbledon to the greatest tennis match quite possibly in the history of sport. And it’s still not over.

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The tilt took place in the Mecca of tennis greatness, the All England Club’s Court 18. The Wimbledon marathon, undecided after 10 hours of tennis and seven in the still unresolved fifth set alone, leaves a comically comical score line:

6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (9-7), 7-6 (7-3), 59-59 susp.

The marathon began Tuesday, with the two combatants tussling through four sets and two hours, 54 minutes before the match was called due to darkness at 9:09 p.m. local time.

They were back on the court this morning at 2:02 p.m. local time for a set they could never have imagined would almost triple the duration of the first four sets. (Bob Bryan, the American doubles tennis star, predicted via Twitter that the final set would be won by their countryman Isner 30-28, but even his idealism proved not optimistic enough. His Twitter feed provides a wealth of anecdotes about the match.)

And tonight, the match is still without resolution and headed to a third day.

The record totals are comical:– It’s the longest match in the history of tennis.

– It’s the most games in a match and in a set.

– It’s the longest set in the history of tennis.

– Heck, the fifth set on its own is the longest match in Grand Slam history.

– In the tiebreak, according to my tallies, 884 points have been played. The breakdown between the two men: 442-442.

– Isner has set the all-time record for most aces in a match with 99, surpassing the previous record of Ivo Karlovic over three hours ago.

– His nearest competition is Mahut’s 95, an amazing total for a man not even regarded as a big server.

– They’ve played 118 games in the fifth set; they combined for 45 games and two short tiebreaks in the first four sets.

– At the end of play, Isner has held his last 75 service games, while Mahut has held his last 76, which must be some kind of record. Both those totals date back to second set.

– Isner, unofficially, has 221 unreturned serves.

– I tuned in with the score 21 all. I didn’t see Isner, the big server, double-fault in that entire time.

– On average, a long fifth set lasts 14 games. What we’re now watching is roughly the equivalent of a 101-round heavyweight fight or a 75-inning game. All that on top of a normal fight/game.

– To put this into World Cup time, as so many events in my life have been over the last two weeks, this mystical set began an hour before the morning games and ended as the afternoon games finished. That encompasses two sets of two-hour games and a two-hour intermission between them.

A couple anecdotes from this amazing spectacle:

– First, the sportsmanship between the two men has to be applauded. There has been no yelling, fist-pumping, or celebrating at points won, perhaps just as much out of mutual respect as exhaustion.

– Every score announcement—“Isner leads 55-54; final set”—by the chair umpire still elicited a laugh from the crowd.

– The match is a testament to the sheer fitness and toughness of each man, especially the 6-foot-9, 250 pound mountain somehow laboring on.

– At the end of the day, there was some debate over whether they could continue before finally calling it a day at 59 all. In addition to a standing ovation, both men left the court with chants of “We want more!” from the crowd.

– Perhaps the image of the match came in Game 117. With Isner serving, up 15-0, he dropped a tidy backhand down the line that Mahut hustled to and returned well enough, he thought, to earn the point. With his back turned, Isner flagged his passing shot down and dropped in a beautiful shot just over the service line. The point looked over, but before the ball finished its second bounce, in the screen came a sprawling Mahut, throwing his racket in a fruitless attempt to salvage the point. As he lie prone, most people, myself included, unsure if he would get up, Isner was able to muster the energy for two claps and a wry smile at his foe.

– To their credit, ESPN has been stellar in their coverage. Instead of throwing both ESPN and ESPN2 to the same scheduled World Cup Preview show, they wisely opted to remain at the All England Club on the Deuce to take wind the match ever so gradually to its conclusion. It started with a brief live look-in that lasted over an hour, so appropriately introduced by ESPN’s Hannah Storm as “ESPN: We’re still here!” They had to leave for the World Cup games, but (and ESPNU for those with premium cable) were there to chronicle the historic event.

The scary thing is that at no point did the match look like it was going to end. Isner had one match point in the last 80 some games, while Mahut had a double-break point that he couldn’t capitalize on. It even seemed hard to fathom how an advantage would be gained by either man. In the teens it was interesting; in the 20s, amazing; the 30s, historic; the 40s, unbelievable; the 50s, just ludicrous.

But the best part: we get to revisit the delirium again tomorrow morning.


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