Sunday, September 4, 2011

Isner-Mahut Wimbledon marathon never really ends

Sunday, September 4, 2011

It was the tennis match heard round the world.

  • The scoreboard shows the incredible result of the Nicolas Mahut-John Isner marathon at Wimbledon a year ago.

    AFP/Getty Images

    The scoreboard shows the incredible result of the Nicolas Mahut-John Isner marathon at Wimbledon a year ago.

AFP/Getty Images

The scoreboard shows the incredible result of the Nicolas Mahut-John Isner marathon at Wimbledon a year ago.

John Isner's 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (7-3), 70-68 defeat of Frenchman Nicolas Mahut in the first round at Wimbledon last year spanned three days, lasted more than 11 hours and dwarfed every tennis record of duration. Even the scoreboard couldn't handle it, malfunctioning at one point.

The final set itself — 138 games over 8 hours and 11 minutes — eclipsed the mark for both time elapsed and number of games for any previous tennis match.

Freakish? Maybe. Sensational? Undoubtedly.

When the match was suspended after a second day at 59-59, the contest between unheralded players had become a global media phenomenon.

It made front-page news across the planet, became a Twitter trending topic long before it ended, and for a day overshadowed the World Cup in South Africa.

The arrival of Queen Elizabeth that week — her first visit to the All-England Club in 33 years — was forced to take a back seat.

A year later, the principal parties recount the experience and how it has affected them …


For Mahut (ma-HU), a journeyman pro who fought through three rounds of qualifying (including a second-round marathon against Alex Bogdanovic, 3-6, 6-3, 24-22), just reaching the first round was an accomplishment.

By Suzanne Plunkett, AP

A weary Nicolas Mahut sits in his chair following his loss in the Wimbledon marathon.

Little did the 6-3 native of Angers, who won the 2000 Wimbledon juniors and whose two titles have come on grass, know how much more tennis was to come.

For 11 hours and five minutes, he and Isner battled to the brink, though he appeared far fresher at the end. For the most part, the match remains a blur of emotions.

"I don't really remember specific shots," says Mahut, 29, who spoke in French that was translated through an ATP Tour official. "I just remember what I felt on the court — how intense was my concentration. I just remember this feeling, the atmosphere, being in the zone."

Two memories stand out.

On the second day at 50-50, the crowd rose and gave the players a standing ovation. And on the third day Mahut got goosebumps when the players walked the roughly 200 yards from the locker room to the court through a sea of people.

"It was incredible," he says.

If some criticized the aesthetics of the serve-dominated affair, Mahut points out that there were many more winners than unforced errors, including a preposterous number of aces — Isner's 113 to Mahut's 103.

Mahut says he could not have played better, but adds: "I can understand if people were a little bit bored because it was dominated by serves."

Throughout the contest, Mahut served from behind — meaning that any break point he faced was a match point.

"At no stage in the match, second day or third day, was I thinking I was going to lose," he says.

Mahut had already staved off four match points, but at 68-69, Isner hit a low forehand return at Mahut's feet and then passed the Frenchman up the line with a backhand winner.

It was the American's 14th break point and fifth match point — but first of the final day.

When the ball went by, Mahut was crushed.

"It was like somebody had stabbed me," he says.

While fans rejoiced at the heroic effort, Mahut felt nothing. "I realized I had lost, and at that moment there was complete disconnect with how everyone was feeling about the match and how I was feeling."

The loss sent him into a three-month depression, which was compounded by a back injury. Mahut, however, says he is proud that their performance put tennis center stage.

"We gave such a great image to tennis because we went beyond a lot of limits, physical, mental, whatever," he says. "We also had complete fair play."

He has published a book about his experience called The Match of my Life (La Match de Ma Vie). And he says he has been able to set new goals and become a better player.

AFP/Getty Images

John Isner celebrates his epic victory against Nicolas Mahut.


Isner was simply happy to be playing. That's what the towering American was thinking when the match stretched into a second day.

The former University of Georgia standout had yet to find his legs on grass — losing his only match at Wimbledon two years before — and trailed 3-1 in the fourth-set tiebreaker in the waning light.

"He arguably could have won in four sets," says the nearly 6-10 Isner, who was seeded No. 23.

Isner had his first match point at 10-9. Mahut blew an ace by him. "If he doesn't hit the line on that first serve … there's a good chance I win the match 11-9 and nobody remembers it," Isner says.

But the players kept coming up with big serves and clutch volleys. Deeper into the final set, Isner remembers the crowd chuckling instead of clapping on changeovers when the umpire announced previously inconceivable scores. "This is frickin' crazy," the 26-year-old thought.

"At a certain point during the match it became kind of surreal, especially after the second day," he adds. "The nightmarish part was I had to come back and play the next round."

Isner managed a fourth match point at 58-59, but Mahut boomed another ace. At 9:11 p.m., after 7 hours and 6 minutes, the umpire suspended it again.

When he returned to the locker room the second night, Isner was more mentally exhausted than anything. He recalls seeing Roger Federer and Andy Roddick, who went out and fetched him some pizza. He drank a shake and took an ice bath but was disoriented. "I didn't know where I was," he says.

Isner had looked punch drunk at times during the second day, and when it resumed on Day 3, he was the more physically fragile player.

He wanted to come out fresh, so he stretched, hit some balls, and taped up his blistered feet. He was warm. A burst of adrenaline shot through his system when the tunnel doors opened leading to the court and droves of people parted to let the players by.

At around 3:45 p.m. local time, they resumed play. A huge crowd greeted them. Spectators lined the walkways above the court. They battled another 20 games when Isner finally set up his fifth match point.

Isner told himself to "stand your ground." When Mahut's half volley off Isner's return popped up, it hung suspensefully in the air.

"It seemed like five seconds," Isner says. "I had a lot of options."

When his backhand winner went up the line it was over — 65 minutes and 20 games into the final day.

Isner says he felt bad for Mahut, but someone had to win. "I could see the kind of grief that he was going through," he says.

Their experience spawned an enduring bond. He and Mahut have become close friends, despite their language barriers.

Isner texts Mahut at least twice a week, and he met Mahut's parents and girlfriend at last month's French Open.

"Without that match we would never talk to each other," he says. "We would just be two guys from different countries trying to beat each other out."

Isner calls Mahut "one of my really, really good friends," a "nice guy" and "class act."

The aftershocks eventually took a toll later in the summer when Isner decided to pull out of Cincinnati and return home for a few days to North Carolina to relax with his family.

Isner also has often seemed reluctant to speak about his experience, saying he wants to put it behind him. But he says the match that would not end has been "more a blessing than a curse."

"If we never pick up a racket again, we'll always have that match," he says.

The peers

By 20-all on the second day, the men's locker room was buzzing. Players were mesmerized, and every TV was tuned to the match. "I think the second day we watched almost every point on TV," says American Bob Bryan, who with brother Mike are the top-ranked doubles team in the world.

According to Mike Bryan, players were rescheduling their practices "just to stick it out," he says.

At some point, the absurdity became audible. "I remember everyone in the locker room just laughing, cracking up," Mike Bryan says.

Roger Federer started his second-round match while Isner and Mahut were at 11-11 in the fifth. "I don't know if I was crying or laughing," he said. "It was too much."

On the second day, Germany's Rainer Schuettler was the second match scheduled to play following the completion of the Isner-Mahut contest.

In the locker room, Schuettler waited. And waited. "It kept going and going," the former Wimbledon semifinalist says.

Eventually Schuettler and his opponent, Denis Istomin, were moved to another court.

American Mardy Fish watched from his flat because he could not get a courtside seat. He and his wife, Stacey, sat in amazement.

"You're on the edge of your seat because you never know when it's going to end," the ninth-ranked American says. "But tennis-wise I don't think it was all that great. As a tennis player you kind of analyze it — how come somebody can't break? It was an unbelievable amount of serving prowess and incredibly bad returning."

On the final day, the Bryans were slated to play at the conclusion of the Isner-Mahut match. They were stuck.

"We had our shoes tied on for hours and hours," Bob says. "We were bouncing around. We didn't know whether to eat food or what to do. It was two points away the whole time. We had to be ready. It was a little bit annoying for us. But definitely fun to watch history."

In contrast to Fish, Mike says it had a courage all its own.

"I couldn't believe how clutch each guy was on their serve," Mike says. "No double faults on key points. Mortals play a sloppy game on their serve. These guys were just bringing it time after time."

When the Bryans finally took the court, they stood next to the scoreboard and snapped a photo. It read like a college basketball score: 70-68.

"It was great for history, but you see the match he played he next round," says Schuettler, referring to Isner's feeble second-round loss to Thiemo de Bakker. The American won just five games and didn't serve a single ace.

Schuettler thinks authorities should institute a tiebreaker at 10-all because otherwise, "you're dead."

AFP/Getty Images

Chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani was a key player in the Isner-Mahut marathon.

The umpire

Mohamed Lahyani estimates he has refereed close to 5,000 professional matches during his career, including 19 Wimbledons. The longest match that he officiated previously lasted five and a half hours.

When he saw his court assignment on Wimbledon's second day, the 45-year-old from Sweden had an inkling he might be in for a long outing. Two big servers on grass means tiebreakers, and since it was the fourth and final match on Court 18, the veteran umpire realized spilling into the next day was a possibility.

"It looked like (it might be long) without even thinking that this could happen," Lahyani says. When the match was suspended just after 9 p.m., locked at two sets each, he thought little of it.

As the match stretched on during the second day, it dawned on Lahyani that he was "witness to something special."

Lahyani called on his reserves. During the bulk of the fifth set, he stretched his legs from the high chair, massaged and rolled his neck, folded his arms. His voice cracked at one point, eliciting a murmur of amusement from the crowd.

He pushed everything out of his mind to stay focused on the match, even forgoing a bathroom break that he could have taken for fear of disrupting the flow. He could not bear the thought of being blamed if the match had ended soon after he returned.

"I said to myself, 'No Mohamed, you stay. You don't have time to think about eat, drink, because every point is like a match point,' " he told himself.

After more than seven hours in his perch the second day, Lahyani retired to his apartment. Exhausted, he could not settle down. It took him another two to three hours to urinate.

He broke out in sweat throughout the night, getting up at one point to take a shower. "I was almost dead. I was tense. The adrenaline was so high," he says.

When the match concluded, Lahyani felt relief, pride and respect for himself and the players, who comported themselves beautifully under emotionally tense and physically trying circumstances. "Not one complaint," he says.

Lahyani, who has served as an umpire for more than 20 years, today sees the match as "a great reward."

He finds it ironic that officials, who jockey to work marquee matches such as a U.S. Open or Wimbledon final, will likely never umpire a match with as much notoriety.

He says the experience both humbled him and taught him a valuable lesson.

"Every match is important, even the first round," he says.

The agent

By the middle of the second day, Sam Duvall's cellphone was on fire. But it wasn't until that evening when he got a call from Matt Lauer, co-anchor of NBC's Today, that he realized the impact back in the USA.

"That's when I knew it was huge," says Duvall, Isner's agent and a vice president with Lagardere Unlimited Tennis.

On that second night, as Isner tried to recover, Duvall and his colleagues at Lagardere strategized until four in the morning about how they might capitalize on Isner's sudden fame.

They hatched ideas for sponsorships with battery company Energizer or a long-lasting chewing gum. "Everybody was trying to be creative," he says.

Once Isner lost in the second round, Duvall helped arrange his heavy schedule of appearances the following week.

They jetted to New York, where he delivered a memorable top-10 list on the Late Show with David Letterman, appeared on Good Morning America and threw out the first pitch at a Yankees game. He and Mahut later won the 2010 ESPY Award for Best Record-Breaking Performance in sport.

In the end, no long-term deals materialized, though Duvall says Isner benefitted financially. "If you're in the mid-six figures off one event, that's pretty good," he says.

Duvall's job is also easier.

If endorsers aren't familiar with Isner's name, Duvall prompts them: "You know, the guy that won the longest match in tennis history? 'Oh, the really tall guy,' " they answer.

"It opens doors to this day," he says.

The mom

Karen Isner knew her son was inexperienced on grass and her first trip to Wimbledon might be short. But the fifty-something realtor had never been to tennis' hallowed ground and decided to make the most of the trip, staying with old friends in London. "I didn't have high expectations," she says.

When play was stopped on Day 1, she figured it was a bonus. A couple hours into the second day, Karen and her friends started joking. "Ha ha," she recalls saying, "what if it doesn't finish?"

Several hours later, it was no laughing matter. She watched her son grimace, struggle and stumble. Her maternal instincts kicked in.

"He was in a lot of pain, and it was hard to watch," she says. "You're the mother, so you can read the looks on the face. It was brutal. I saw pain. I saw a look of horror, disbelief."

The magnitude hit her on the morning of the third day, when an ESPN official coaxed her to climb atop the broadcast center that overlooks Court 18 — an area five deep with people during the last two days of the match.

She could see an entrance to the club. Outside the gates, throngs were gathering for the 10 a.m. opening.

"From there, you could see what looked like a million people lining up," she says.

When Isner finally won, it elicited no feeling of joy, only relief. She had prepared no words for her son, and she delivered none. They only hugged.

"For Nicolas, my heart broke," she says. "Nobody should have lost that match. He was so amazing, and he looked like he could keep playing. John was more beat-up looking."

The next day was also tough. Hobbled by blisters on his feet and depleted, Isner could barely move in a quick second-round defeat.

"I'm proud that he went out there with zero chance that he could win," Karen says.

Karen says the match was a "double-edged sword" for her son. It brought notoriety, but it also brought unwanted attention.

"From his point of view, he lost in the second round of Wimbledon," she says. "In his mind, he doesn't see it as some accomplishment. It was sort of a fluke more than something he's proud of."

Life quickly returned to normal for Karen at her home in Greensboro, N.C., though she says rarely do more than a couple days pass without someone mentioning it.

She also met Mahut at the 2010 U.S. Open. They chatted warmly.

She won't be back at Wimbledon this year in order to prepare for her eldest son's wedding, but she plans to be back soon.

She and John, who calls his mother by her first name, don't talk about the match. But Karen suspects the long-term affects linger.

"I wonder, but I've never asked him, if he gets into a long match — like the (five-setter with Rafael Nadal) last month at the French Open — in the back of his mind does he go, 'Oh gee, can I get through it again?' "

The tally

Some of the records Isner and Mahut set in their marathon:

Longest match: 11 hours, 5 minutes (and set, 8:11). You could watch the 2004 romantic comedy Wimbledon nearly 6.8 times in the time it took the match to finish.

Most games in a match: 183 (and set, 138). In 2008 it took Rafael Nadal only 169 games … to win seven matches and the French Open.

Most points in a match: 980 (and set, 711).

Most aces by both players: 216 (Isner 113, Mahut 103). And by one player, Isner.

Most service games held by both players: 180 (of 183).

Consecutive service games held by both players: 168. And by one player, 84 each.

Commemoration: Bronze statues have been commissioned and will be displayed in the press center, the entrance to which is right next to Court 18.

So, should Wimbledon change its policy and go to tiebreakers in the fifth set? There's no reason to change, said Johnny Perkins, the spokesman for the championships. "The fact is we don't have tiebreaks," he said, "and there's no doubt that as a result Wimbledon spectators enjoy some of the greatest drama in tennis."

Posted | Updated

Powered By | Full Text RSS Feed | Amazon Plugin | Settlement Statement | WordPress Tutorials

View the original article here


Post a Comment