While the World Cup has been lapping up all the media attention and hype, Wimbledon has been quietly going about its business. But when that business involves Roger Federer nearly going out in the first round, a similar scare for Djokovic, the worst performance of the also-ran Brits in the championship’s history, and Andy Murray recapturing some of the form that got him to the Australian Open final back in January, it was already shaping up to be one of the most interesting first weeks on record.
But then THAT MATCH happened. You know the one by now, surely, and all about two players you’d likely never heard of before yesterday: John Isner and Nicolas Mahut. Sporting colossususususes… er… colossi. Gods among men. It’s the usual hyperbole trotted out in epic sporting contests, but this one made the Lord of the Rings trilogy look like a GCSE film studies project. Already dubbed “the greatest tennis match of all time” even before today’s finish, it was certainly the longest. 11 hours and 5 minutes, in fact, spread out over 3 tortuous days. The records kept falling – longest match ever, longest set ever, most games in a match ever, most aces from one player ever, most aces in a total match ever, most sore bum for an umpire ever. Scary stuff.
While the tennis itself wasn’t always brilliant – oh for this to have been Federer versus Nadal, it would have been beyond mindblowing – the match had intrigue and drama in abundance, beyond any admiration for racquet skills. Two men pummelling each other via the medium of serves into exhaustion, the combination of physical and mental strain forming the battlelines of a unique encounter. At times, Isner looked out on his feet, with Mahut quick out of his chair between ends to try to gain the psychological edge. But while Isner had doubtless depleted his energy reserves more quickly than Mahut, he had the twin advantages of serving first in the final set (Mahut having to hold his own serve repeatedly to stay in the match) and his serve being a very potent weapon. Sure, by the end he wasn’t doing much running in the rallies, but Mahut had little answer for his 130+ mile an hour bullets. Whenever he seemed to be in trouble (at love-30 down, for example), he would piledrive down a couple of aces to rescue himself. By the end of the match, he’d fired 112 of them, beating the old record by a massive 44.
It seemed like it would never end, that the players would be continuing the match until the insects rise up to overthrow their human masters and the Sun eats up the world, but Mahut finally capitulated, with a couple of tired shots on his serve putting an extra spring in his opponent’s step. The final score was 70-68, and when Isner hit the passing shot that won him the match, he collapsed to the floor, staring up into the sky, barely believing that the torture was finally over. Isner admitted afterwards that he had been “delusional” at times through sheer fatigue, and who can blame him? Mahut looked like he wanted to go back to the locker room for a good cry, but was required to hold it all together with the stiffest of upper lips for a special presentation to mark the match, and some photos next to the scoreboard. I hope that whatever he was handed in that present box was made of real crystal.
So where does this all rank in sporting folklore? Pretty damn high, as we’re unlikely to ever see another match quite like this one. It made all previous Wimbledon wars of attrition look like a walk in the park. The level of fitness required to play for as long as Isner and Mahut did, and how they had the mental strength to maintain their levels of concentration for so long, are scarcely believable achievements.
The greatest ever, then? Beating that Federer vs Nadal final a couple of years ago? Maybe. Certainly Wimbledon has a story that may even beat out this World Cup when it comes to sporting history, and a new pair of tennis heroes who will never be forgotten. Isner and Mahut – long may we speak their names. What a match!