Yesterday at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, more commonly referred to by its neighborhood in SW19, London ("Wimbledon"), American John Isner and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut continued playing the most improbable tennis match of all time.
It all started on Monday as a routine first-round match for Isner, a rising pro player who'd led the University of Georgia Bulldogs to a 32-0 season and the 2007 NCAA championship. More recently the big-serving, 6'9" American won his first pro tournament in Auckland, New Zealand and cracked the world Top 20 for the first time.
His first opponent at Wimbledon, Mahut, was a somewhat obscure journeyman who'd qualified for a spot in the Wimbledon main draw by winning three consecutive matches in the qualifying tournament that precedes every major tournament. So he was hot, but then again not ranked high enough for a direct entry into the event. It figured to be quick work for the seeded Isner.
Their match started Tuesday on Court 18, where they battled to two sets apiece and after 2 hours 54 minutes, finally stopped on account of darkness.
They returned to Court 18 Wednesday to play the fifth and final set. The U.S. Open is the only Grand Slam tournament that has a fifth-set tiebreak, so Mahut and Isner would play until someone had six games won with at least a two-game lead.
They played to 6-6, then 7-7, then 8-8, and on it went. Some were reminded of last year's Wimbledon final, in which Andy Roddick pushed Roger Federer to what seemed like the outer limits before Federer triumphed 16-14 in the final set to win his 6th Wimbledon title.
But Isner and Mahut quickly blew past that threshold. Each was serving bombs and holding serve routinely, often at love. Break points were few and far between.
The other marathon match many tennis fans remember also involved Roddick: his 2003 Australian Open quarterfinal against Younes El Aynaoui. Roddick won 21-19 in the fifth set.
Isner and Mahut made those matches look like the best of three tiebreak sets. On and on they played. 24-24. 30-29. 35-35. 41-40. 46-46.
We went to lunch for my birthday at something like 28-all. It was a slow, leisurely lunch at a nice restaurant. Then we ran a few local errands. When we got back to the office, we were stunned to find the match was still going on.
Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, we were able to watch the day's last few games live on the computer. Mahut double-faulted at 58-59 to give Isner his fourth match point (he'd had one at 10-9 and a pair at 33-32), but Mahut blasted an ace up the T to get back to deuce, then won the game to get to 59-59.
At that point, it was after 9 p.m. London time, and Mahut complained to the chair umpire that he could no longer see the ball. So after 7 hours 6 minutes (so far) of fifth-set play (!), 10 hours total (!!), they agreed to return Wednesday to conclude, or at least continue, the match.
There is so much incredible stuff from this match, anecdotally, historically, and of course statistically. I have to catch a train now but I will throw in some more thoughts later.