To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before …

It started on Tuesday and carried on till Thursday. It was one of the great moments of Sport.

The Match

John Isner, Nicholas Mahut and History

The match generated a huge amount of interest as it indeed should. Across all media –  newsprint, television, blogs, facebook, twitter and the coffee machine chatterbox – it remained a central discussion piece. This piece by Rohit Brijnath I thought best did justice to the match.   (From the Straits Times, Singapore)

IN ANCIENT and grimmer times, boxing had no roped rings, no gloves, no set rounds. Punches flew till a man fell and could not rise. It is not the sort of contest one expects on Wimbledon’s aristocratic lawns, yet John Isner and Nicolas Mahut produced something similar in a spectacular tennis epic that spanned three days and passed 11 hours before Isner prevailed. It was sport pared down to its raw, unadulterated basics. Sport that was all breathtaking, bloody-minded commitment. It was last man standing stuff that flirted with the fictional.

Their story began on Tuesday, when the day ended with 28-year-old Mahut, the Frenchman, tied with 25-year-old Isner, the American, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (9-7), 6-7 (3-7). On Wednesday, they played just one single unfinished fifth set, 59-59, over seven hours and six minutes. That set alone was longer than the previous longest tennis match of 6 hours 33 minutes.
Last night at Wimbledon, combat continued, and Isner-Mahut remained joined at the hip, tennis’ inseparable Siamese twins locked in combat till the American finally won 70-68 in the fifth set.

The fifth set defeats the imagination for no analogy fits. Even 60-59 in a penalty shoot-out won’t work. This was not 22 men taking a few kicks, but two men serving, sliding, lunging. Two men, scrapping for longer than six football matches. Two men, unbending. “It was madness,” Mahesh Bhupathi, the Indian doubles star, told The Straits Times. “It was ridiculous. I saw the match. Pretty much everyone in the locker room was watching.”

They watched, entertained and awed, because this was tennis’ perfect storm and we are naturally drawn to the outlandish, seduced by the possibility that what is before us will never be repeated. Said Roger Federer: “I have almost no words any more watching this. It’s beyond anything I’ve ever seen and could imagine.”

Sport rests on the assumption that a human will eventually err enough for a rival to take advantage, or an inspired shot will tilt a match or luck will intercede. But this is freakish. It is inexplicable that it took three days to separate them, even if you factor in their big serving which made them hard to break. When they finished, Isner had 112 aces, Mahut 103.

It was beautiful because it was sport devoid of gimmick or controversy. There was no distracting talk of equipment, pay cheques, coaches. Distilled to its essence, this was simply about will. Every person has quit in them. It is part of our measure as athletes, amateur or professional. At the 10th km, one man halts; at the 14th, another stops.

Humans push till they collide with what seems their breaking point. The knees weep, lungs cry. Courage is defeated by weariness and a contest does not seem worth it any more. We give in. Psychologically, we leave boxing’s white towel of surrender on the green grass.

But not Isner, not Mahut. They ate, drank, grimaced, taped fingers, fell to their knees. But they would not quit.

It was beautiful, too, for they played for nothing really. It was not a final, but a first round. Not on centre court but on court no. 18. No million dollars at stake, but $38,700 to the man who got through. No country depended on them nor a teammate.

The comparative irrelevance of the match makes their performances stirring. For they were playing for personal pride. Just doing their day job. Professionals giving everything. Trying to earn ranking points. Trying to bend their bodies into one more serve. Just one more.

They had no boxing trainer to wipe the face. No football masseur and coach to rub legs and give advice at half-time. It was just two men jousting on a court. Nothing else. It is why Wimbledon’s refusal to have a fifth-set tie-breaker is right. To win, sometimes you must go to the very extremities of the self.

On Wednesday night, the match unfinished, Frenchman Mahut, who single-handedly has shamed his football team with his desire, said of Isner: “He’s just a champ.” No, they both are, irrespective of result. Because what they did out there on court no. 18 wasn’t just tennis. It was what sport desperately needs in these hair-jelled, overpaid, pretentious times. An unadorned show of human spirit.


23 thoughts on “To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before …

  1. Thanks for putting this up.

    It’s been many years since I got to read Rohit Brijnath, and I miss his writing (Sharda Ugra tries to keep the flag flying; she’s very good, but she’s not Rohit)


  2. Tks Anon.

    And Cheers, J.A.P. Some of his older stuff is here under the Tags. But the rest of it is all bottled up in the Straits Times- a not inconsiderable advantage of living in Singapore..

  3. Awesome article.. Thanks to Rajdeep Sardesai who tweeted… This shows what Wimbledon means to Tennis players.. As Andy Roddick put it, We say records are meant to be broken, but not this one… This requires Godly act.. This was beyond everything that has ever happened in history on Sports.. Court 18 should be renamed as Isner-Mahut Court..

  4. Where does Rohit Brijnath write these days? He is the greatest Indian sports writer. We used to get a weekly dose from him when sportstar was sportstar. (These days it has become rubbish). Can you guide me to a link where I could read his stuff on a regular basis.


  5. Thanks for the visits, guys. (and thanks too to the guys that tweeted it). Glad you guys liked it.

    Rohit Brijnath now writes for Singapore’s premier newspaper – the Straits Times. The site is subscription based.


  6. This is something a clear display of survival…thanx to the writer for his awesome writing and also to rajdeep sardesai for tweeting

  7. This is a great display of victory in all sorts. Thanks to the writer for his great words and also to Rajdeep Sardesai for tweeting

  8. 2 ekalavyas
    both cutting
    right thumb,

    An honest
    by two
    for someone
    taught them
    the game
    and how
    it is to be played….

  9. Brilliant stirring sorts piece from Mr. Rohit Brijnath.
    Sure it made headlines everywhere even in this World Cup season. Will we see another such match? I doubt but sports never ceases to amaze you.

  10. Stirring article and so well written. You made me remember the pain and pleasure of finishing Delhi Half marathon last year.

    Truly inspirational write-up. Thnaks Mr. Sardesai for retweeting.

  11. Pingback: Top Posts —

  12. When started reading this I thought i was reading a post-match comments but last 2 lines made me realize the importance of Sports in real life – The ambassador of peace in any era.

  13. i don’t know how brijnath does it. there is no use of complicated words, no mind-boggling metaphors. just simple, plain stuff. but he arranges them so well that they become so much more the sum of parts. to read this man is to understand the true nature of sport. his pieces are social commentaries, match reports, ode to players and love letters to the sport all at once.

    what a writer.

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