Until yesterday afternoon, a first-round encounter at the 2004 French Open between Fabrice Santoro and Arnaud Clement had the distinction of being the longest tennis match in history, at six hours and 33 minutes. In terms of games, the longest was the celebrated 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9 match between Pancho Gonzalez and Charlie Pasarell, also a first-round match, at Wimbledon in 1969.
But both were knock-ups by comparison with the match that ended shortly before 5pm yesterday on Court 18: the gruelling contest between the huge American John Isner and the Frenchman Nicolas Mahut lasted 11 hours and five minutes over three days, and practically sent the online betting exchange Betfair into meltdown; the favourite changed no fewer than 2422 times in a match that ended with a scoreline for which there is not even close to being a precedent: 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68.
All kinds of records had tumbled before the most decisive tumble of all; Isner hitting the deck in euphoric exhaustion after delivering the final coup de grâce. The match totalled 183 games and produced 215 aces, almost equally divided between both men. As a more or less direct consequence, there were 168 consecutive service holds. Until the final game, the last break of serve had been in the second game of the second set, when Isner was broken at 0-1.
Among those watching the denouement on a packed, rapt Court 18 was seven-times Grand Slam champion John McEnroe, temporarily relieved from his broadcasting duties. The evening before, with the final set stalled at 59-all, he had told the BBC that the match was already "the greatest advertisement we've ever had for the sport, beyond the spectacle of a Wimbledon final like Roger Federer versus Rafa Nadal. I'm so proud to be part of this great game and see those guys perform physically."
He duly joined in the long, enthusiastic and indeed somewhat relieved standing ovation that greeted the end of the match, yet for all the excitement of the occasion, history having been made so emphatically, it must have reinforced McEnroe's misgivings about the power of the serve. He once suggested that changes should be made to professional men's tennis, with only one serve allowed and less powerful rackets used. Certainly, extended rallies between Isner and Mahut were almost as rare as sightings of armadillos on Wimbledon Common, and for hour upon hour, whenever there was a squeak of a chance that a game might go against serve, it was promptly obliterated by a barrage of aces.
Isner, who stands 6ft 9in in his stockinged and at 5pm yesterday, possibly quite smelly feet, was launching even second serves of more than 130mph. To paraphrase a distinguished compatriot of Mahut's, c'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas le tennis.
Still, it would be churlish not to acknowledge the astounding endurance powers of both men, and for that matter even those of the Swedish umpire, Mohamed Lahyani, who remarked afterwards that he is quite used to spending 11 hours sitting in a cramped chair; he flies economy. As for Isner, who was watched by his proud and emotional mother, he conceded that after the suspension of play on Wednesday night he felt delirious, as though he was in a dream. He only managed to drift off to sleep at around 12.30am, he added. "And I woke up, you know, when the sun's coming up at four. Never seen that before."
It's already been quite a week for seeing things we've never seen before.Reuse content