As the sun began to set over the All England Lawn Tennis Club at 21.09, play is called to a halt on the third day of the 2010 Wimbledon Championships. It’s the 23rd of June and millions of people from around the world tuned in to watch their favourite players hopefully avoid upset in the early rounds, but by the end of the day it wasn’t Roger Federers, Rafael Nadals, or even Andy Murrays names on everyone’s lips. Relatively unknown when they resumed their game that afternoon at two sets all, they left Court 18 that night as record breakers, history makers, and the talk of the tennis world.
The night before American 23rd seed John Isner had taken the first set 6-4 before Frenchman Nicolas Mahut struck back winning the second 6-3. Mahut then edged himself in front having won a third set tiebreak with neither player being able to break the serve of the other. This pattern continued in the fourth set with Isner coming out on top to send the game to a decider which was scheduled for the next day with the light fading.
The game started the next day in the same way it finished the evening before, neither player was giving an inch on their serve. Yet this was Court 18 so nobody was really hearing much about it. Most of the focus was on number one seed and tournament favourite Roger Federer. The Swiss maestro was forced to come back from two sets down in the first round and his form and capacity to go on and win was being called into question. As Federer heading to Court One to take on Serbian qualifier Ilija Bozoljac, Mahut and Isner were still locked up at 11-11. Little was he to know that a little less than three hours later when he’d won, not entirely convincingly, they’d still be going hammer and tongs.
By now people had realised that something amazing was happening on one of the lesser courts, with all 780 seats taken, queues forming around the outside of the court, and fans scrambling to line the awning that overhangs the court giving a tiny glimpse of the action. As the scores hit 32-
32 in the remarkable fifth set it became the longest match in tennis history. By 47-47 even the scoreboard couldn’t keep up and remained static until the end of the day. By 9pm the players were visibly exhausted and were barely moving to meet the ball. They just had to rely on their serve and pray the other man made the costly mistake before they did. Yet nobody made the mistake, and after a stunning TEN hours of play the match was called to a halt with the scores tied at 59-59.
Thursday at Wimbledon was a circus. Centre court and “Henman Hill” were as deserted as they have ever been, despite the prospect of British favourite Murray’s game earlier that day. Fans lined up all morning to snag their place in court 18 for the climax of the game that wouldn’t end. Even Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II made her first appearance at Wimbledon in
30 years. The players reemerged onto Court 18 for their finale to raucous, energetic applause from their new fan base. If only they could have imbibed some of the energy themselves. With exhausted muscles and minds they played for another hour before Isner finally made the breakthrough and took the match 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68.
The pair had written themselves into Wimbledon and Tennis folklore and set a whole host of records that we’re likely never to see beaten. It was the longest match in history finishing after 11 hours and five minutes. The fifth set alone was around 90 minutes longer than the previous longest ever match, therefore making it the longest set in history. There were also records for most games in a match (183), most games in a set (138), most aces by a single player in a match (Isner with 113), most total aces (Isners 113 and Mahuts 103 totalling 216), most points in a match (980) and most points won by a winning and a losing player (502 & 478 respectively).
But what effect did this game have on the two players? Isner was scheduled to play his second round match versus Thiemo de Bakker the same day, but it was postponed overnight. The previous three days exploits had clearly taken their toll on poor Isner. He was spending as much time with his physio, for neck and shoulder issues, as he was on court. He was eventually trounced 0-6, 3-6, 2-6 in just 74 minutes and without serving a single ace. Yet that still wasn’t supposed to be it for the American who was scheduled to then play in the doubles with compatriot Sam Querrey. However he was forced to withdraw cited blisters on his toes as the reason, who can blame him? He would have been able to fly back home to Florida in less time than his match against Mahut has taken.
Mahut meanwhile wasn’t even given the grace of a night off. Later that same evening he was summoned to play in the doubles on none other than Court 18. They only played the first set, which Mahut and his partner Arnaud Clément duly lost, before packing up for a well deserved sleep. Mercifully for the Frenchman the game wasn’t required to be finished on the 25th so he had another days rest, but it wasn’t enough to prevent a hasty defeat.
Unbelievably the pair were drawn to play each other in the same round the following year. ‘Not again’ they must have been screaming as the press fell about the place hyping up Isner v Mahut II. It wasn’t to be an epic repeat though, with Isner running out as a relatively comfortably winner.
Neither player has really kicked on from their boost to stardom, with their Grand Slam records since that day seven years ago not making the prettiest of reading material. Mainly they contain first and second round exits, peppered here and their with an occasional third round and the odd rare fourth round. Isner remains in and around the top 25 ranked players in world tennis but Mahut has dropped to the 50-100 range.
Despite their mediocrity in today’s game, the pair will always be remembered for their historic marathon match.
“It was really an honour to play the greatest match ever at the greatest place for tennis.” Nicolas Mahut
It was also an honour to watch.