It was unprecedented, even in the offices of Tennis magazine. Walking around the offices and cubicles here on the afternoon of the John Isner-Nicolas Mahut match, I saw everyone, edit staff, sales staff, marketing staff, online staff, magazine staff, maybe Peter Bodo himself, watching a tennis match on their computer screen. For a long time. And not talking about very much else. It made for a nice afternoon.
Among the American public at large, it was the most discussed match in years, a genuine popular phenomenon that was, to me at least, totally unexpected. But among the people who watch tennis all the time, it was more controversial: Was Isner-Mahut a colossal contest for the ages, or an exhibition in the mundane that should hasten the advent of a fifth-set tiebreaker at Wimbledon? Considering that I’ve ranked it No. 2 for the year, you can guess my opinion. Epics, whether they’re novels, symphonies, films, battles, or tennis matches, tend to have their dull moments, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t epics.
Sorry for the relative cluelessness of the commentators doing the highlights on ESPN. It was the best I could find. There were a bunch of match point highlights to choose from, but I went with this one because of the British announcer’s first words: “How will he cope with the enormity of this situation?”
I’ve told people this before, but I’ll say it here again. When these guys went out on the second day at 8-7 in the fifth and started to play, I thought, “This is going to be suspended again.” Neither appeared to have even the remotest chance of breaking the other’s serve. While that doesn’t say much for their return games, it does say quite a bit about their serves. We know what Isner can do with his, but Mahut was equally impressive because, while he hit more than 100 aces, he also did it with old-fashioned serve and volley, rather than straight-up bombs.
I don’t like statistics all that much—they seem to tell us what we already know. And the length of a match in hours and minutes isn’t all that telling, either. But this time it was. Isner-Mahut was stat heaven:
11 hours, 5 minutes: total match time, 4 and a half hours longer than the previous longest match, between Santoro and Clement at the French in 2004
8 hours, 11 minutes: the longest fifth set ever played. Don’t even bother mentioning another fifth-set in the same breath. You might as well go to baseball for a comparison. The longest MLB game ever played was 8 hours, 6 minutes, in 1984.
138: games in the fifth set, 26 more than have ever been played in an entire match
215: aces hit—Isner, 112; Mahut, 103. Previous record was 78, by Ivo Karlovic
183: total games played
3: service breaks
I don't know the total points won by each, except that Mahut won more, which means that he has won by far the most points in a single match in history.
Particularly enjoyed watching: Isner’s forehand, which was as good as I’ve ever seen it, especially inside-out, and which got him out of trouble many times. Mahut’s serve down the middle in the ad court. He’s a skinny guy with an effortless motion, but he kept nailing the corner and getting the ball to hook away from Isner, who had no chance at all of catching up to it. And Mahut's backhand, which he smacked into the corners with relish and abandon (abandoned relish?).
The point-to-point drama wasn’t high, and there were more than a few times when I wanted it to be over, but the quality of play was still good even after eight hours in one day. The slick early-round grass made the points short but rewarded their quality shots with winners.
Question: When Isner fell down after match point and lifted his legs back up, how high in the air do you think his feet were? Guessing they were about as tall as Roger Federer.
Also, I guess I have a kewed point of view, but I was amazed in the aftermath of this match how few people had ever heard of Isner. I kept hearing him described as a “nobody” even in the U.S. I thought being in the Top 25 in the world made you, at the very least, somebody.
So, after playing for eight hours one day, and going to 59-59, they come out the next day and still play one of the longest sets in the tournament, 11-9.
OK, why did this match become such a big deal, at least in the U.S.? Why did Isner read the Top 10 list on Letterman and why was it featured as news—real news, not sports news—on the networks? It was more widely talked about here than even the Nadal-Federer 2008 Wimbledon final. What was the fascination? It had to do with the basic reasons we watch sports in the first place.
There were the stats, of course. The fifth-set score itself, while it ascended, was eye-popping. There was the called-for-darkness-twice factor (how would this match have played out at the U.S. Open, I wonder). And for Americans, there was Isner’s presence. But underneath all that was something more fundamental. It was Mahut, at 50-games-a, leaping, diving, flinging his racquet at the ball, and landing face down at full stretch. It was Isner whiffing on a backhand, standing with his hands on his knees and his hat askew, dead to the world, and still laboring on for 40 more games. It was all the times each of them could have given in—it only took a bad point or two—but didn’t.
This was a first-round match. It was played on the obscure-sounding Court 18. Neither player was a star, and neither, at least in the general public’s eye, had any chance of winning the tournament. All of that only added to the appeal. What mattered was that, whatever the stakes, neither gave in. Isner-Mahut wasn’t the most thrilling tennis match of all time. But it is one of the greatest of all time because, for a longer period than any other, it represented what’s at the heart of every match, and of every sport: The Battle.