Wimbledon Wonder: The Mother of All Marathons

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60846965It was a match for eternity, that seemed to last an eternity.

Here was an immoveable object confronting an irresistible force. Call it tennis’ answer to the Bataan Death March or a gritty battle of will and endurance.  Dismiss it  as just a brawl of two dead man walking, or an even intensely boring  shoot out at the (not so) okay corral — a Zen sitting gone terribly wrong.   Or see it as simply heroic, as Roger Federer suggested).

During John Isner and Nicolas Mahut‘s record blasting and still-not-finished-after-all-those-aces match stretched over two dusks, four different critical World Cup matches were decided. Federer survived another (though more modest) Wimbledon scare and it seemed that 451 planes cruised overhead en route to Heathrow landings and about 3,789,604 Chinese souls arrived on this good earth.

Sure, the unending struggle kick-started howls — “Where’s the tiebreak when we really need it?” Others insisted that once 100 games have been played in a match, dropshots should be banned or fans at least should get free pizza.

But don’t tell all this to the thousands who packed Wimbledon’s enchanting outer Court 18 or the historians who quickly recalled all the great marathons Wimbledon has gifted us (Pancho Gonzalez vs. Charlie Pasarell, the 1980 Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe classic (when Mac beat Borg in the fourth set tiebreak 18-16 only to lose the fifth set); Nadal’s into-the-dusk triumph over Fed in the ’08 final, and Roger’s 16-14-in-the-fifth win over brave Andy Roddick in last year’s final.

But the 6-3, 3-6, 6-7(7), 7-6(3), 59-59 battle royale between Isner and Mahut was another matter all together: a match which seemed to have it’s own internal logic, it’s own internal clock that never wound down. This was the mother of all marathons.  Never mind that for weeks we have endured nil-nil soccer scores. Or that the score of the fifth set first seemed like a football score before resembling the score line of a Princeton hoops game. Here was a match that may have set a record for records.

• Longest match in tennis history — 10 hours (and counting). The longest previous match was a mere 6 hours and 33 minutes, when Fabrice Santoro beat Arnaud Clement in the first round of the ’04 French Open. (BTW: the longest game in baseball history was 8 hours and six minutes.)

• Most aces in a match — Isner’s 98 (and counting). Ivo Karlovic “only” cranked out 78 in Croatia’s Davis Cup semi againt Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic.

• Most combined aces in a match — 98 by Isner and 95 by Mahut to total 193 (and counting), which is more than double the measly previous mark of 96 by Karlovic and Stepanek.

• Most games in a match — 163. The previous singles mark was the 112 games of the 1969 first round Wimbledon match between when Gonzalez beat Pasarell.

• Longest fifth set in a Slam — seven hours and six minutes. The previous high was Roddick over Younes El Aynaoui 21-19 in the ’03 Aussie Open.

Still, for all it’s wide margins and astonishing triumphs, there was plenty you didn’t see or hear in this marathon. There was no announcement that “for the sake of security there will now be a tiebreak.” No one called out “new players, please.” And, until the very end, there were no stoppages for “comfort breaks,” no injury timeouts and no gamesmanship. And when the match was at last suspended (at 9:09 p.m.)  for the second straight evening due to darkness, neither player (like Jim Courier was prone to do) said, “Hey, I’m going for a jog.”

Instead, pink cheeked fans from Belfast yelled “com’ on Johnny” a self-righteous crew member who pulls the tarp on Centre Court insisted that —  “after France’s disgraceful display yesterday (in the World Cup), I’m going to pull for that big American.” Not to be outdone French fans, who dominated the almost enchanting scene, chanted “Nico! Nico!” squealed “Monsier Oui!” and set their own record for chanting “Allez! Allez!”

Incredibly, Mahut responded with a steely nerve as he successfully served to stay in the match 27 times — incredible.  A compelling test of grit, will and endurance, it was a contest that would not end, a twilight zone of aces and an incredible 469 unreturnable serves. Yes, Isner could not convert on four match points and had 218 winners to “just” 217 for Mahut. But even though the Frenchman was six inches shorter and ranked 84 slots below Izner, it seemed that Mahut continually had the upper hand. After all, Izner seemed totally spent. Yes, his served zoomed in at 143 mph (before it dipped to just 88), but he ploddeed about the court at a glacial pace, seemingly on the brink. Lumbering and lanquid, time and again he haplessly glance at his coach Greg Boynton. “What’s he on,” Isner whispered to himself. Blasting seeing-eye backhands, serving more slowly but almost as effectively as Isner and playing the huge points with nerve and courage, Mahut (who was injured last year and has largely been playing Challengers this year) displayed touch and daring as he dived in desperation and absorbed one Isner blast after another.

Still, this was a story of two athletes who drew celebrity viewers — John McEnroe, Tracy Austin and French coach Guy Forget.

This was the tale of two ironmen who, according to the BBC’s Gigi Salmon, “had bladders of stone,”  who forced the umpire’s voice to quiver, outlasted  courtside reporters whose notebooks ran out of paper and a flawed scoreboard which faltered and fizzled at 47-47.  But certainly one thing that never broke was Isner’s will. Yes, he turned to his coach at 56-55  and said, “I can’t.” But Craig Boynton replied, “Keep holding your serve, you’re doing well.”

After the (hold serve and survive) match was finally suspended, Boynton told IT that what his man Isner showed today was “heart — it was all about heart.” Boynton added that at 26-26 all he “thought it was crazy…[then] it went into uncharted territory…[but that] the bigger the occasion the bigger John plays, that’s just the kind of kid he is.” Boynton confided that he would “put his arm around him and say how proud he was of him — win or lose…If you are a kid in the U.S. and want to be a professional it should be mandatory to sit down and watch this match.”

For here was a tennis match unlike any other in the 133 year history of beloved Wimbledon. Ten hours of battle that will, as long as there are serves and volleys,  as long as there are strawberries and cream and as long as their punchers and counter-punchers, will be celebrated — not so much for it’s mind-numbing records — but for it’s display of unwavering grit and fire-in-the belly will which allows us to peg this wonder as the mother — the mother of all marathons.