Mahut and Isner ready for second round of epic battle

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It takes just 10 seconds to read the 33 words printed on a new, oval plaque mounted outside Wimbledon's Court 18 to commemorate the longest ever tennis match, which took place at the All England Club a year ago.

It is a typically understated acknowledgement by Wimbledon organisers of the feat achieved by John Isner and Nicolas Mahut – but then no amount of words could sum up an act of extraordinary endurance that spanned three days and lasted 11 hours and five minutes over five gruelling sets.

Those two same gladiators will return today to the All England Club for a rematch after they were shocked to be drawn together for a first-round meeting.

"I'm very happy to come back to the UK and play in front of the English fans, and at the same time I'm a little bit worried about being able to meet the expectations. It's a question of not letting people down," said Frenchman Mahut, who lost last year's epic match.

"Freakish", "astonishing", "unbelievable", "mind-boggling" and "bizarre" are just some of the words competitors used when Isner and Mahut were drawn together again for this year's championships – the same words, in fact, that were used to describe their first-round encounter last June, which kept a global audience of millions glued to their seats.

Going into today's encounter, American Isner summed up the sentiments of the two players best by saying: "It's weird and it's cruel."

At the time of the draw last Friday, Wimbledon referee Andrew Jarrett twisted the knife further by suggesting that "there is every possibility we could schedule it for Court 18 again".

That, though, would be the worst-case scenario for Mahut, who plunged into depression for three months after losing the 183-game match 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68.

"I hope that the organisers will try and avoid that situation [of playing again on Court 18]. But if I have to go back out there, then I don't know. It will be a strange feeling because it will be impossible for me not to think about [last year's] match," said Mahut.

The chances are that with so much buzz and expectation surrounding the rematch, a court holding just 782 spectators will not do, and this time they will play out Act II of their rivalry on either Centre Court or Court One.

"This time there's obviously a lot of attention, and all this is a bit new," said Mahut, who has been struggling to come to terms with the hype.

A year ago, Mahut served the first ball of the match at 6.13pm on Tuesday 22 June. The "never-ending match" finally reached its conclusion at 4.48pm on Thursday 24 June.

The fifth set alone lasted eight hours 11 minutes and was 98 minutes longer than the previous longest grand slam match ever played, when Fabrice Santoro finally celebrated victory over Arnaud Clement at the French Open in 2004.

The Isner-Mahut match was not only the longest ever played but broke the records for the longest set, the most games in a set (138), most games in a match (183), most aces in a match by one player (Isner 113) and total aces (216). In the fifth set, Mahut successfully served to stay in the match for 64 games in a row – a display of extraordinary staying power.

Statistics, however, tell only one story – that the match went on and on and on. The numbers reveal nothing about how Isner and Mahut stayed out there for so long, the mental and physical battles they had to endure during the contest, or what happened next.

"We have become really good friends through this experience. That's one of the things that I have become most happy about," said Mahut. "We write to each other and send messages. We follow each other's results and, maybe if my English was a bit better, we'd have more chance to know each other better.

"We've been trying to play doubles for a while but it's difficult. We wanted to play Wimbledon but it's tough as it's best-of-five-sets doubles and also in singles. But we'll definitely play Wimbledon together one year," he added

Following last year's match, Mahut said he suffered "a blackout and a kind of breakdown and almost lost my memory for a bit". It was , indeed, a feeling that came back to haunt him last Friday.

"I was following the draw on my computer when my name came out, then the screen went blank," Mahut explained. "I was sitting in the locker room when this great yell of 'Noooooooo' went up. Nobody could believe it.

"I didn't believe it when they said I had drawn John. I had to go to the television screen just to check it was actually true. Then I got a text from John on my phone. It was of a sad face. We both agree it's just crazy.

"For both of us it is going to be tough mentally and it's weird how it has happened again."