Gladiatorial metaphors are common in tennis, a sport of one-to-one combat, but last night at Wimbledon they came close to reflecting reality.
In a match of unprecedented length – and one that has still not been concluded – two hitherto little-known players fought almost literally to dropping point for the right to progress to the second round of the men's singles.
Play between John Isner, a 25-year-old American, and France's Nicolas Mahut, 28, was stopped on Court 18 at 9.09pm because of bad light, with the score standing at 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 59-59. That is not a printing error. By close of play they had split 118 games in the fifth set, which itself, alone, had taken more time than the previous longest match in history.
The pair have played for 10 hours precisely over two days already, and will resume today in a match that will go down in sporting lore.
There must be serious questions over whether either man will be in decent shape. When they left the court, Isner was pale and swaying, and in an interview as he left court he was so drained that he sounded drunk. "This is ... nothing like this will happen again, ever," he said, looking dazed and confused. "He's serving fantastic. I'm serving fantastic. I'd like to see the serving stats."
Mahut said: "He's just a champ. Fighting like never before. But we'll be back tomorrow." Isner is the world number 19, stands 6ft 9in tall and was considered by some tennis experts to be a dark horse for the Wimbledon title this year. He must now be an outside bet to be able to walk properly today. Mahut, ranked number 148 in the world, is a journeyman player whose highest ranking was No40, two years ago. Immortality is now assured.
Mahut had asked for play to be suspended because of bad light. Tournament officials agreed, even though Isner apparently wanted to continue despite being barely able to stand, let alone move with any fluidity. The gladiatorial scene was completed by the crowd response to the suspension of play. As the players and officials huddled a few minutes after 9pm, the 782-strong capacity crowd began to chant: "We want more! We want more! We want more!"
But the officials took pity, and the weary players agreed with the call. As play was suspended, the crowd applauded with the same fervour with which they had called for a continuation. A massive crowd, thousands strong, had also gathered on Henman Hill to watch the historic action on the big screen. The match has already pulverised every record in tennis relating to length of a match. The previous longest match by time lasted six hours and 33 minutes; that was at the French Open in 2004. Isner and Mahut will resume with the clock almost four hours past that point.
The longest match in games at Wimbledon before this was the 112-game thriller between Pancho Gonzalez and Charlie Pasarell in 1969. Isner and Mahut have slogged it out for 163 games already.
The records they broke
Longest match anywhere: 6hr 33min, Fabrice Santoro v Arnaud Clément (French Open, 2004)
Longest match at Wimbledon: 6hr 9min, M Knowles and D Nestor v S O K Aspelin and T S Perry (2006)
Longest singles match at Wimbledon: 5hr 28min, G Holmes v T Witsken (1989)
Most games in a match at Wimbledon: 112, Pancho Gonzalez v Charlie Pasarell (1969)
Most games in a set at Wimbledon: 46, Pancho Gonzalez v Charlie Pasarell (1969) and Nicola Pietrangeli v Niki Pilic (1962)