A Match That Shatters Records And Belief

published June 23, 2010

A tennis court.  Evening.

Estragon:  Let’s go.

Vladimir: We can’t.

Estragon: Why not?

Vladimir: We’re waiting for a service break.

And waiting.  And waiting.

John Isner and Nicolas Mahut occupied Court 18 at the All-England Lawn Tennis Club for seven hours and six minutes on Wednesday, and played one hundred and eighteen games.  By either measure, it would have been the longest tennis match in grand slam history.

But it was only one set.  And it isn’t over.

The U.S. soccer team snatched victory from the jaws of defeat on Wednesday, scoring in the ninety-first minute to stave off elimination.  The game was exciting, but it unfolded as though the teams were working from a well-crafted screenplay.

By contrast, the Isner-Mahut match has demolished all prior notions of reality and credibility.

The two split four sets on Tuesday in a match suspended due to darkness.  They returned to the court just after two p.m. Wednesday and found themselves on the other side of the looking glass.  When the match was suspended again due to failing light, the score stood at 59-59 in the fifth.

“It was surreal,” Isner’s coach, Craig Boynton, told ESPN.  “It was like something out of a dream.”

“Nothing like this will ever happen again,” Isner said courtside after the day’s action.  “Ever.”

The longest previous set of singles at Wimbledon lasted 46 games, part of what was a record 112-game match between Pancho Gonzalez and Charles Pasarell in 1969.  Isner and Mahut each won over 28% more games than both players played in that earlier set.

And it isn’t over.

To put the match in perspective, it is impossible to put the match in perspective.  What can you compare it to?  A five-overtime football game?  An NBA player scoring 256 points?

In The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, a novel written by W.P. Kinsella after the success of Shoeless Joe, a team of amateurs in 1908 takes on the World Champion Chicago Cubs in a game that lasts over two thousand innings and goes on for weeks.

John Isner probably knows how they felt.

The tallest player in the draw, Isner’s game is built on his big serve; his great wingspan gives him an advantage at the net, but his long legs limit his mobility.  Mahut, a French grass-court specialist, is ranked 148 in the world and came through qualifying to get to the main draw.  Isner has one career title, and is best known for knocking Andy Roddick out of the U.S. Open last year; Mahut has only reached two finals in his ten-year career, both on grass, both losses.

The compelling drama they staged also served as a reminder of why the U.S. and Australian Opens abandoned grass courts decades ago.  The pair was trapped with Bill Murray on Groundhog Day, living the same two games over and over again.  Isner became increasingly one-dimensional as time wore on, blazing his serves past Mahut or establishing his advantage quickly.  Mahut responded with big serves of his own, which became increasingly effective as Isner’s legs grew weary from carrying the 245 pounds on his 6-9 frame.

Mahut bounced.  Isner trudged.  The scores mounted.

Isner’s one weapon was enough to give him the advantage time after time.  Serving the odd games, Isner faced just two break points in the set, at 50-50; he responded with an ace, an overhead smash, and then two quick winners for the game.

Mahut perpetually faced the pressure of having to hold serve to keep the match alive.  He faced it fifty-five times, including four match points, and came through every time.

Then Isner served, the two sat down, and it all started up again.

Ace after ace.  Game after game.  Time after time.

It is no longer a tennis match.  It has gone beyond the bounds of history, into unknown territory.  It’s an exploration of limits, a test of will, a commentary on the human condition.

Submitted for your approval: Two tennis players, each with strengths and weaknesses so perfectly matched that neither can defeat the other until one of them submits.  Condemned to serve endlessly in their fateful journey through time, concluding not in twilight, but in The Twilight Zone.

The match continues on Thursday.  Whether it will end then is anybody’s guess.

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