On paper it looked unremarkable; on grass it smashed record after record. After 11 hours and five minutes, a seemingly routine first-round encounter at Wimbledon between John Isner of the US and the Frenchman Nicolas Mahut finally came to a close yesterday, Isner prevailing by 70 games to 68 in a final set for which the word "epic" seems inadequate.
By some considerable distance it became the longest tennis match in history, and if ever there was a place for the old cliché about it being a shame there had to be a loser, it was on Court 18 shortly before 5pm when Isner unleashed a passing shot that, for all its dramatic, grandstanding finality, might as well have been a sword through his opponent's heart.
How the French must wish that the footballers who represented them so feebly in the World Cup had shown something of Mahut's resolve. While the recriminations continued over the eliminated French squad's internecine childish refusal to train, another sportsman had done the nation proud, albeit in defeat.
It was Mahut's misfortune, with the match evenly poised at 6-4 3-6 6-7 7-6, to serve second in the final set, which meant that every time the 6ft 9in American took the lead, which he did 69 times, Mahut had to serve to stay in the match. Along the way, in a contest that began on Tuesday and had to resume on Wednesday and then again yesterday because of fading evening light, the 28-year-old Frenchman only had to save five match points. But save them he did, until the final, heartbreaking capitulation.
Never has Court 18, one of the lesser show courts, been as packed as when the match resumed at 59-all in that deciding set. At least half an hour before the players emerged, not only was every seat taken, but also every possible vantage point overlooking an arena that had utterly upstaged its larger, more illustrious neighbours. Even the ball boys and girls were applauded. Everyone wanted to be a footnote in history on a day when the Queen made her first visit to the All-England Club since 1977, and yet found herself second on the bill.
The drama continued even after the match's conclusion. Mahut tried to slink away for the sanctuary of the locker-room, but he was stopped by Tim Henman, and politely ushered back on to the court. There Henman and the former Wimbledon champion Ann Jones presented the two exhausted players with some cut-glass mementos of the occasion, which was very nice, very Wimbledon, but perhaps not wholly appropriate. At the end of the day, indeed at the end of three days, Mahut had lost a first-round match. He wanted to go home.
Perhaps the last word should go to the umpire, Mohamed Lahyani. Asked if he had found the match an ordeal, he said: "I travel economy. Seven hours sitting still on court is nothing."
Meanwhile, the regiment of journalists reached again for the cliché book. What else can you do in 11 hours and five minutes? Fly from London to Los Angeles and part of the way back again? Read War and Peace? Hell, write War and Peace. War and Peace. Isner and Mahut. Some names are destined to be forever entwined.Reuse content