Today marks precisely one year since the most astonishing match in tennis history, a contest that will live long in the memory of anyone who witnessed any part of it.
When American 21st seed John Isner drew French qualifier Nicolas Mahut in the first round of the 2010 Wimbledon Championships, he must have expected a relatively easy passage through to the next stage. As the match entered its fifth set, however, the score remained at two sets each with Isner clawing back the fourth on a tie-break. At this point, he would just have been grateful to take the game into a second day as the players left the court due to fading light at 9.07pm.
The match resumed on Court 18 on Wednesday 23 June with a result that afternoon pretty much guaranteed… or so we would have thought. Isner and Mahut proceeded to play out a remarkable fifth set that would eventually span more than eight hours, seven of which took place on that second, groundbreaking day. Isner surpassed Ivo Karlovic’s record of 78 aces to take the final set to a quite astounding 39–38 on his way to an eventual 113 unreturnable serves. At 5.45pm, the match entered unforeseen territory, fast eclipsing the previous record of 6 hours 40 minutes.
At 47 games apiece, Wimbledon’s electronic scoreboard malfunctioned, first freezing before going completely blank. IBM programmers worked hard to fix the problem for the next day, ensuring the scoreboards could facilitate an additional 25 frames; should the fifth set have extended beyond 72 frames each, it would have malfunctioned once more.
As the light faded at Wimbledon, the two were still battling it out at 59–59. This contest would have to be continued on a third day, but would it reach a conclusion?
Isner and Mahut returned to court at 3.43pm on Thursday 24 June to an incredible reception. It took little over an hour for pre-match favourite Isner to consolidate on a broken serve and finally, after 11 hours and 5 minutes of play, the match had drawn to a conclusion at 6–4, 3–6, 6–7(7–9), 7–6(7–3), 70–68. The players, considerably fatigued, were each awarded a crystal bowl and champagne flutes on behalf of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, who also installed a commemorative plaque at Court 18.
It’s no surprise that a worse-for-wear Isner was annihilated in his second round match, which he lost in straight sets to Dutchman Thiemo de Bakker. But history shall remember the 2010 Wimbledon Championships for ‘the endless match’, perhaps more so than eventual victor Rafael Nadal. It will be a long, long time before we see anything even remotely similar, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the record stands for decades upon decades, maybe even centuries.
In a remarkable twist of fate, Isner and Mahut would once more be drawn together at the 2011 Wimbledon tournament, again in the first round, but the American completed a disappointingly clinical three set victory on a revamped Court 3. Well, did you expect anything more? There’s not much scope for an encore when your previous encounter lasted more than three days, two scoreboards, 50 bananas and six bottles of lemon and barley cordial. Probably.
Image courtesy Voo de Mar (CC2.0)