Isner, Mahut Match at Wimbledon Will Be Remembered For Its Numbers
WIMBLEDON, England -- "Good spot here, kid. Come on. C'mon kid, you can do it. C'mon.''
Coach Craig Boynton was encouraging his player, John Isner, at Wimbledon Wednesday. Isner was serving to Nicolas Mahut in the deciding fifth set. It was 40-15.
The score in games? Thirty-four all. That's right, 34-34 in the fifth set. No tiebreakers in the fifth set at Wimbledon, so someone has to get a two-game lead to win. And from that good spot, Isner held serve. Then Mahut held. Then Isner.
Mahut. Isner. Mahut.
The shadows worked their way across the court and hours passed. They would play 50 more games. Fifty! A record. Isner would hit 98 aces. 98! A record. Mahut would hit 95.
I feel the need to keep repeating these numbers because this was a freakish tennis match and these numbers have never been reached. In all these generations here, the longest a match has lasted was 112 games.
This one set went 118. And in the end, well, it never even ended. It was 59-59 when they stopped because of darkness.
They continue on Thursday. Already, it's the longest match in history, at 10 hours. Before this, the longest was 6 hours, 33 minutes.
The fifth set alone, which is all they played Wednesday as the match was stopped for darkness on Tuesday night, too, took more than 7 hours.
Probably every single-match tennis record was broken. And it will always be told by the numbers, because that's how we like to measure things, by record books.
But a moment in history is less about numbers than about emotions, colors, shapes, sizes. I'll get to the numbers, too. Later.
Consider this an oral history.
"What do you say?'' Boynton said as he walked off afterward. "It's 59-all. We're going to look back 45 years from now and say we were here.''
Did you know they broke the scoreboard? It was like a pinball machine where the numbers went too high and everything short-circuited or went kaplooey. It was 47-all when that happened.
About five hours earlier, Isner hit one of his 135-mph serves off the plate with his name on the board. He dented his own name.
Where were you? I was at the match until it was 8-7. Then, I left the grounds and walked 15 minutes into Wimbledon village, found a pub and watched the entire England World Cup soccer game.
I walked back to the All England Club, where Isner led 28-27. So I sat maybe eight feet from Boynton on my left, eight from Mahut's coaches on the right.
The amazing thing was not the ace-total, but that neither player was ever broken. I'm not talking about their serves, though that would be true, too. At some point, in six, seven hours of crunch time, you would expect one player to have a problem of nerves or focus.
They fought and fought and were relentless. It reminded me of a Dr. Seuss story I used to read my kids about a North Going Zax and a South Going Zax meeting face to face, feet to feet and would never budge.
Isner would serve to go ahead one game, and then Mahut would serve to stay alive. Mahut served 56 times in a row to stay in the match.
Fifty-six. There I go again.
There was one moment. Isner, who had four match points, led 56-55 and was two points again from winning. He hit a backhand into the net, turned to his coach, shoulders shrugged, palms up and said with a high-pitched and rising voice:
"Keep holding serve, kid,'' Boynton said calmly. "You're doing well.''
Then Isner held serve.
Court 18 is like nothing you've seen. It's a small stadium on the side of a hill. Along three sides, fans stand on top of the hill or a building or a wall and look down on the court and stands. On one side, a sidewalk slopes and green wood slats block the view. People were looking through those slats like little kids at a baseball game in a Norman Rockwell painting.
Others climbed onto the wall. Hundreds of people stood packed on the hill where you can see about one-eighth of the court at most. Far away, people jammed an outer concourse at Centre Court for a view.
Every little crack in the walls, knothole, corner. People were there.
Here is my favorite stat. They use six tennis balls at a time and replace them seven games into the match, and every nine games after that.
They burned through 84 tennis balls Wednesday.
Here's another good one: They have played 612 points in the fifth set, with Mahut winning 315 and Isner 297.
Every time the chair umpire called the score in games, the crowd giggled.
It was 38-37, with the shadows covering half the court for each player, when I started wondering about their health. Not just cramping, which neither player ever did. But what if a player just dropped from a heart attack? Is it safe to run three marathons in a row?
"John's going to fall down,'' Boynton said, "before he gives up.''
How close did we come to that?
"What do you do?'' Boynton said. "There is no playbook for this.''
They kept hitting big shots when they needed them. Isner seemed exhausted for at least three hours. The big question about him has always been conditioning.
It is not now.
Mahut kept looking to his coaches with a tough look, wanting them to pump a fist back. They yelled to keep pushing.
In the middle of the set, he was massaging his stomach muscles. But he kept playing.
Later, Isner was working his shoulder. He kept crushing serves.
At 50-49, the crowd broke into a spontaneous standing ovation.
At 55-54, flashes started going off on cameras. At 58-57, a security guard said that we were not to leave after that game for security reasons. Huh?
The players had agreed to stop for a bathroom break. As they walked along behind the court, Isner and Mahut started talking to each other. I don't know what they said, as players don't come in for interviews until after their match is over, meaning Thursday. But one thing that happened was that the players came together through this match.
You are fighting, and at the end of the fight, you shake hands. They were doing it during the fight.
On one point, Isner hit a volley for a sure winner, but Mahut came charging fullspeed. He dived for the ball, even threw his racquet at it.
Isner smiled. "What is this guy on?'' he said.
The truth is, this wasn't the highest quality tennis, but it was OK. Isner was serving too well to be broken, and his returns weren't good enough to break. The match would have gone on forever.
It was a study in equality, of play, of fight.
Isner seemed to be tortured by it, as if he were running on a treadmill that wouldn't stop.
"What am I supposed to do?'' he said to Boynton.
"Your tennis here, kid,'' Boynton said. "Your tennis here.''
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