Wimbledon moments: The endless match
Originally published on 27/06/14
From the longest match ever played (11 hours and five minutes) to most games in a set (138), most games in a match (183) and total aces (216), the three-day epic had almost everything. Ironically, the player who won the most points ever in a match, Mahut (502), didn’t even win the contest as he was finally beaten 6-4 3-6 6-7(7-9) 7-6 (3) 70-68 at 4.48pm on Thursday after starting at 6.13pm on Tuesday – without any rain delays. The fifth set alone, at eight hours and 11 minutes, was 98 minutes longer than the previous longest Grand Slam match, and Mahut served to stay in it an incredible 64 games in a row.
Had it been Mahut’s first outing at the tournament that would be remarkable enough but the Frenchman had already been pushed to the limit in qualifying. After winning his first qualifier in straight sets he came through a 3-6 6-3 24-22 marathon against Alex Bogdanovic before fighting back from two sets down to beat Stefan Koubek 6-7(8) 3-6 6-3 6-4 6-4.
The opening evening of the first-round match against Isner was ordinary enough as the American took the first set, Mahut the second and they then shared the next two on tie-breaks – the second of which Isner won six points in a row to come back from 3-1 down – before play was halted due to darkness. Then the records started to tumble.
Resuming at 2pm on Wednesday, the players slugged it out for another seven hours before they were called off again for bad light with the score tied at 59-59. Isner later revealed: "From the third set tie-breaker onwards, I decided I wasn't going to lose this match by playing a loose game. I told myself: if I hold my serve, I can't lose." Both had spurned chances to win the match while the scoreboard had also struggled to last the distance, malfunctioning at 47-47 and then going dark. Isner himself admitted it was "delirious" by the time play was abandoned while his coach Craig Boynton said he was "incoherent" for a short time. Still, both players were only able to sleep for four hours before they rose again in anticipation of day three.
"After my second ice-bath, Pierre [the fitness trainer] went to bed," said Mahut. "Boris [Villejo, Mahut’s coach] stayed up trying to distract me by teaching me the Rubik’s Cube. It didn’t work. I finally went back to my room at 1.30am, and got a few hours’ sleep. Three or four, no more.
By now, word was well and truly out about what was occurring on Court 18 and as soon as the main gates opened fans rushed the court to secure their seats. When the match resumed at around 3.30pm it soon settled into a familiar rhythm, until the "endless match" finally came to an end. With the score at 30-30 and 69-68 to Isner, the American smacked a forehand winner past his opponent before taking his fifth match point with a backhand down the line.
"I knew he would try to pass me down the line. He always passed me down the line," said Mahut. "I had even put that in the notes on my Blackberry. But my legs wouldn’t respond, and the ball flew past my nose. It was at once very fast and very slow. It was the end of the world."
The pair summoned the energy to warmly embrace but unsurprisingly they could not muster much more at Wimbledon that year. Isner was beaten in straight sets in his second-round match and also withdrew from a doubles clash while Mahut lost in his doubles meeting. In the wake of the gruelling contest, John McEnroe wondered whether it would take six months of both of their careers. Thankfully, then, it wasn’t another marathon when they were drawn together again in the first round the following year as Isner won 7-6(4) 6-2 7-6(5) in just two hours and three minutes.