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