Tennis: Isner triumphs in record-breaking match
FORTY bottles of water, 12 energy bars, seven rackets, three bananas and eight hours and 18 minutes later, the curtain finally came down on that set, ending this unforgettable first-round match.
John Isner threaded a backhand pass beyond Nicolas Mahut as the Frenchman attacked the net and then -- justifiably -- fell to the floor.
The final score after 11 long hours and five minutes -- 6-4 3-6 6-7 7-6 70-68.
Yawn tennis? Not a bit of it. "Herculean," John McEnroe called it.
When Isner and Mahut began their fifth set, on Tuesday, they were small fry in the tennis scheme of things. Wimbledon also-rans.
Well, they have battered and bloodied their way into the sport's history books, having contested a fifth set watched around the world, during which the standard never faltered.
No wonder that Isner confirmed what most had suspected. "I was completely delirious," he said.
Though not delirious enough to miss the meaning of the match.
"This is something that Nic and I will share forever. I don't think I've ever said five words to the guy prior to our match. Now when I see him in the locker-room, we'll always share that."
Forget the World Cup; this was the story. Crowd 50-deep at the doors, St Mary's Walk at a standstill. Want a pew on this 782-seater court?
No chance, not when ESPN are told to shift and the BBC's John Inverdale has to sit on the floor. Even Isner's mother, Karen, could not barge her way in until she waved her security pass in front of a guard's face.
The players had left the court, whose every scuff must be seared into their memories, to a standing ovation, and they returned to one.
Overnight, the scoreboards had been fixed. Having given up the ghost at 47-all, they were up to date, 59-all in the fifth.
Play resumed, and you could almost hear the creaking.
Isner had had four hours sleep, Mahut three. Isner's footwork was sluggish, his left leg playing up, but none of the sting had been taken off the American's serve, and he responded to being immediately taken to deuce with a 138mph ace.
Mahut, too, was suffering. Serving at 60-61, his fingers jabbed at his stomach: cramps. Still he held, pumping his fist. Isner looked frankly bewildered by it all, before scorching down another bomb. This really did seem like it would never end.
At 68-all the first signs of tension crept in. Isner chucked his racket to the floor, and fell 0-30 behind. An opening, surely. Four unreturnable serves and Isner was back in his chair.
How do you deal with that? The next game, the 65th time he had served to stay in the match, Mahut played a poor drop-shot into the net, his mind disordered. Suddenly it was 30-40, Isner's fifth match point.
After 20 games on their third day of playing -- two good sets' worth in normal currency -- Isner stroked a backhand winner.
"He's a champion," Mahut said after hugging his opponent at net. "We just played the greatest match at the greatest tournament."
Incredibly Isner, who must play Thiemo De Bakker today, thinks he can go further here. As for his fitness, his coach "actually jokingly said before the tournament started that I'd be able to play 10 hours. That's the truth."
Mostly, however, Isner just hopes that this will not be his magnum opus.
"This will stick with me for the rest of my life," he said, "but I hope it doesn't define my career."
Would it be such a bad thing if it did? Supreme will, outrageous spectacle, wonderful story. The best thing of all, though, was that, even after everything, Mahut could still leave the court just as he had arrived -- smiling.
Meanwhile, world No 1 Rafael Nadal must have felt relegated to a sideshow beside the Isner-Mahut marathon as he was forced to battle for Wimbledon survival before extinguishing Dutch firebrand Robin Haase in a 5-7 6-2 3-6 6-0 6-3 thriller.
The 2008 champion found the resolve to come through a stern examination from the unshaven, tousled 23-year-old Haase who, like Nadal, has struggled with a troublesome knee injury that has stymied his career.
Andy Murray, by contrast, turned in a majestic performance against Finland's Jarkko Nieminen to surge into the third round without the loss of a set. The world No 4, Britain's only player of either sex to reach the second round of the singles, nearly fluffed his opening service game before marching to a 6-3 6-4 6-2 victory.
"Once I managed to hold that game that settled me down a little bit," he said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)