Isner makes short work of Mahut. Nine hours shorter...
Wednesday 22 June 2011
Mills and Boon, Rolls and Royce, Laurel and Hardy, and Crosse and Blackwell all had their associations, but as likely as any of them to be linked in perpetuity are John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, whose first-round match at Wimbledon last year was the longest in tennis history, making yesterday's repeat encounter – albeit, aptly, on the longest day of the year - an inevitable anti-climax. There was an early glimmer of possibility that another marathon might be on the cards, the first set going with serve all the way to a tiebreak. There was a third-set tiebreak too. But last year's winner Isner emerged victorious again, 7-6, 6-2, 7-6 in a paltry two hours and three minutes.
Of course, a first-round match between the 47th best player in the world, and the man ranked 94th, neither of them British, would in the normal scheme of things pass without much attention on the second day of Wimbledon. But there is nothing normal about the names of Isner and Mahut, at least not when bracketed together. Last year's contest finished 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68, and measuring its duration required a calendar as well as a clock. It began just after 6pm on the Tuesday, and finished shortly before 5pm on Thursday, having encompassed 11 hours and five minutes of action.
Since then, the 6ft 9in American and the Frenchman have acknowledged that they are destined to be forever entwined by becoming firm friends. They were both duly tickled by the bizarre twist of happenstance that saw them drawn against each other again in this year's first round, so unlikely that Andy Murray, on Twitter, declared it "the most amazing thing I've seen in tennis!" Murray called for their match to be put on Centre Court, but it was a sunny, wind-buffeted Court 3 where yesterday their mutual affection was set aside.
Despite that opening set tiebreak there was never much chance of anything like last year's record-breaking epic. But how much is "not much chance"? By offering a mere 250-1 against the match going beyond the celebrated milestone of 11 hours and five minutes, the bookmakers William Hill were surely guilty of Scrooge-like stinginess. Ladbrokes were twice as generous, quoting 500-1, although even that looked as improbably short as Isner is improbably tall. Nevertheless, to put those numbers in context, 500-1 are also the Ladbrokes odds against David Cameron becoming the next leader of the Labour Party, Sunderland winning the Premier League next season, and Ryan Giggs being voted the BBC Sports Personality of the Year for this year.
Unsurprisingly, alongside last year's statistics, yesterday's turned out to be positively prosaic. Both men hit eight aces. By comparison, Isner sent 113 past Mahut last year, the record in a single match, while Mahut's 103 aces put him second on the all-time list. When their famous duel finished, there had been 168 consecutive service holds. Yesterday there were never more than 14. Before he finally struck the passing shot that mercifully for everyone but his distraught opponent brought last year's contest to a close, Isner had held four other match points, one at 10-9, two at 33-32, and one at 59-58. Yesterday he required just two.
Still, there seems little chance that yesterday's more commonplace encounter will bury memories of the record-breaking match. If anything it rekindled them, which is why the public seats on Court 3, and the press seats, were crammed. There was reportedly a long hopeful queue to get into the public seats, yet by dispiriting contrast, the much larger reserved section was no more than 50 per cent full, those punters presumably enjoying their champagne and smoked salmon too much to want to see any live tennis, even between the sport's Crosse and Blackwell, if not its Rolls and Royce.
Still, for the protagonists, if not the spectators, the significance of the match was what it presaged for the future, not what it evoked of the past. They did not enter the arena with any particular sense of occasion, and the atmosphere in the crowd was commensurately low-key at least until the third-set tie-break, when the patriotic cries began to ring out. "C'mon John, do it for America," went one, and John did proceed to do it, though probably more for himself, and his feet, than for America. Afterwards, he needed no reminding that he was a physical wreck in last year's second round, losing in straight sets and not hitting a single ace.
"I knew I had no shot unless my opponent sprained his ankle in the first point of the match," he recalled. This time he heads into the second round full of confidence, which is just as well, because he knows he needs to "make a huge mark on a Grand Slam" if he is to be remembered for something other than Isner v Mahut.
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