“Nothing like this will ever happen again, ever,” John Isner said after winning the fifth set, 70-68, over Nicolas Mahut at the 2010 Wimbledon Championships. So far Isner is correct, but he needed another titanic fifth set—this time a 26-24 defeat against Kevin Anderson in the 2018 semifinals—for Wimbledon to terminate over 100 years of tradition and institute a fifth-set tiebreak at 12-all. Isner and Mahut's clash was so absurd, it inspired a star-studded HBO mockumentary, "7 Days in Hell."
Ten years later, we look at a (nearly) unbreakable moment.
On the afternoon of June 23, 2010, something odd happened in offices, bars, and homes all across the United States: People began watching a tennis match. It wasn’t, when it started, an important tennis match: John Isner, the 23rd seed, was facing Frenchman Nicolas Mahut in the first round at Wimbledon on side court No. 18. Few people in the U.S. believed Isner was a threat to win the tournament, and fewer still could pronounce his opponent’s last name.
There were long stretches when the match wasn’t especially interesting to watch, either; it offered little drama from one point to the next. By the time the world began tuning in, Isner and Mahut were deep into a fifth set, and had been trading service holds for hours. Play had been suspended once for darkness the previous day. Now, as the sun set over the All England Club again, and the score reached 20-all, 30-all (!), 40-all (!!), 50-all (!!!), it looked as if this match would be suspended for a second day, for the same reason. Had that ever happened before? Had anything that was going on out on Court 18 ever happened before? Even the scoreboard found itself in uncharted waters. Designed to go only to 47-47, it malfunctioned and had to be fixed that evening.
If Isner and Mahut's record is to be broken, it will have to happen at Roland Garros, the only Grand Slam without a fifth-set tiebreaker. (Getty Images)
People had tuned in at their offices, bars, and homes for one reason: Isner and Mahut were in the process of playing the longest match in tennis history. It also, almost certainly, qualifies as the most incredible match ever played. The last decade in men’s tennis has been about outsized, record-breaking achievements: Roger Federer’s Grand Slam total, Rafael Nadal’s nine French Open titles, Novak Djokovic’s streak of dominance in 2011. You can add Isner-Mahut to that Olympian list. While it was brutal for the two men to play, and a chore at times to watch, the statistics are mind-blowing to recite now.
Score: 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68
11 hours, 5 minutes: Total match time. That’s four hours and three minutes more than the second-longest match, a Davis Cup doubles rubber between the Czech Republic and Switzerland in 2013.
8 hours, 11 minutes: Time taken to play the fifth set. You have to go to a different sport entirely for a comparison here. The longest baseball game ever played was eight hours and six minutes.
138: Games in the fifth set. That’s 26 more than have been played in any other match
215: Aces. Isner hit 112, Mahut 103. The previous record had been 78 by Ivo Karlovic
183: Total games played. That’s 71 more than the second-highest total at Wimbledon, in Pancho Gonzalez’s five set win over Charlie Pasarell in 1969
63: Times that Mahut served to stay in the match
3: Service breaks
After three days on court, Mahut's determination began to look more like despair. (Getty Images)
At 68-68 in the fifth, Mahut went up 0-30 on Isner’s serve, but the American came back to hold. Maybe Mahut was still thinking about that opportunity when he came out to serve the next game, because he missed an easy volley that would have won him a point. Isner, who had been on his last legs for the better part of 24 hours, finally took advantage, first with a forehand pass and then, on his fourth match point, with a down-the-line backhand pass winner. All 6’10” of Isner dropped to the grass, before his legs caromed back up nearly as high in celebration.
Isner and Mahut were suddenly famous, and they struck up what might have been an otherwise unlikely friendship. Some thought their epic had been a bore, as well as a good argument for a fifth-set tiebreaker at Wimbledon (you’ll get no disagreement on the latter point from Isner), yet this match was about more than just its surreal length and statistics.
When it was finally over, Isner celebrated with the largest shoulder stand pose in tennis history. (Getty Images)
There was something more fundamental that made people around the world tune in. It was Mahut, at 50-games-all in the fifth set, 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, utterly gassed, yet still laboring on for 40 more games. It was Mahut enduring a heart-breaking defeat, but still winning more points in a single match than any other player in history—except Isner. It was all the times that each of them could have dropped their guard—it would only have taken a bad point or two—but didn’t.
The fact that this was a first-round match played on an obscure court between two players who weren’t stars only added to the appeal. What mattered was that, whatever the stakes, neither man gave in. Isner-Mahut wasn’t the most thrilling tennis match ever. But it’s one of the greatest ever because, for a longer period of time than any other, it represented what’s at the heart of every tennis match, and of every sport: The fight.