Sunday 17 December 2017

Tennis: Epic Wimbledon battle enters the record books

The scoreboard shows the last score before it stopped working during the record-breaking marathon match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon yesterday. Photo: Getty Images
The scoreboard shows the last score before it stopped working during the record-breaking marathon match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon yesterday. Photo: Getty Images

Sandy Macaskill

Two lines of Rudyard Kipling's poem 'If' famously hang over the players' entrance to Centre Court at the All England Club, but they are not the ones that mattered yesterday.

As John Isner and Nicholas Mahut fought over their first-round match which so far has lasted -- wait for it -- 10 hours exactly, the longest in history, it was the line "If you can wait and not be tired by waiting," that resonated amid such remarkable scenes. Both must wait some more.

It was 2.04 when these two men walked onto Court 18 to resume at 0-0 in the decisive fifth set; seven hours, six minutes later (longer than the previous longest ever match at Wimbledon), they walked off, the match suspended due to poor light at 59-all. After such strength of will, it will be tragic that there should be a loser tomorrow.

Perhaps Novak Djokovic put it best: "They are both winners." Certainly, few will forget this in a hurry -- probably never. Remember, Mahut -- who only came through qualifying after beating Alex Bogdanovic 24-22 in the third set of their second round encounter -- had to haul himself from his chair 55 times knowing that he had to serve to stay in the match. He saved three match points. Who said the French don't have passion, don't have composure?

The records tumbled by the minute. Most games in a fifth set in Grand Slam history? Check. Most aces in a match at Wimbledon? Check. Make that Grand Slam history. About the only record they didn't break was fastest serve -- that went to Taylor Dent over on Centre.

The longest match in Grand Slam history before this was six hours 33 minutes, between Fabrice Santoro and Arnaud Clement, at Roland Garros in 2004. Knocked into a cocked hat, then, as unstoppable force met immovable object. The scoreboard gave up at 47-all. Those players who couldn't get a space court-side gathered around the television in the locker-room.

It was, put simply, epic. Isner's t-shirt turned see-through with sweat, his shorts threatened to go a similar way. When umpire Mohamed Lahyani announced the score at each changeover, the crowd tittered involuntarily at the ridiculousness of it all. They gave a standing ovation when Isner, then Mahut, knocked up their half-centuries. Again when they departed.

As the shadows began to lengthen across court, those same spectators had begun to joke that tournament officials would have to move the players onto Centre Court before the light failed. By the time the other courts were being dismantled, it didn't seem so silly.

The tennis ebbed and flowed, attritional, nail-biting rallies followed by a procession of aces and one-two punches. The line umpires should have been wearing tin helmets, not flat caps, so often were they peppered with rockets. Both players broke the previous record for the number of aces in a match. Mahut hit 95, Isner 98.


Which points to pick out in such an epic? Mahut, serving at 32-33, faced two match points. He met both with a steely gaze, and held serve. It took him 101 games to bring up a break point in this final set. Suddenly he had two of them. Steely gaze from Isner, this time.

Both were saved.

Isner, physically deteriorating by the minute, was now moving about court in between points like golden syrup off a spoon - slower, even - from the effort of bending his 6ft 8in frame to retrieve backhands skidding inches from the ground. His mother, watching, could hardly bear to watch. Mahut - incredibly - still looked sharp. John McEnroe, watching courtside, suggested doctors should be present.

"These guys are going to be tired the next day, next week, next month," Roger Federer said.

Isner could hardly move. In the 118th game, at deuce, Mahut doubled.

Match point. Saved with an ace. Incredible. After holding serve, Mahut complained about the light, and the match was suspended. "Someone has to win, we will come back tomorrow and see," he said. "Nothing like this will ever happen again," Isner added. "He's serving fantastic, I'm serving fantastic. That's all there is to it." No, there is more than that. Much more.

Andy Roddick made it through into the last 32 by beating Michael Llodra

4-6 6-4 6-1 7-6.

This was, nevertheless, about as tricky a second-round match as Roddick could have had. You have to wonder why Llodra (30) a tall left-handed player with a good serve, has never reached the third round of Wimbledon.

During the first set, and for much of the second, Llodra was the better player and was returning Roddick's serve brilliantly. In the first game of the second set, Llodra had a couple of break-point chances and he should have done better on the second one than to swat a forehand volley into the net.

The first test of Llodra's mental fortitude came in the 10th game of that set, when he struck a double-fault to go 0-30 down. On the next point, he played probably the worst volley of the match to make it 0-40, and then failed to dig out a pickup. Roddick was suddenly level at one set each. Though Llodra was not competitive in the third set, he took the fourth to a tie-break.

Meanwhile, six-times champion Federer was forced to dig deep as the Swiss reached the third round with a hard-fought 6-3 6-7 6-4 7-6 victory over Serbian Ilija Bozoljac. The No 1 seed finally prevailed in two hours and 46 minutes. Federer now takes on either Frenchman Arnaud Clement or Australian Peter Luczak.

Elsewhere, Belgium's Kim Clijsters raced into the third round courtesy of a 6-3 6-2 win over Croatian Karolina Sprem and Belgium's Justine Henin took a hesitant step towards a first Wimbledon title when she came through her second-round contest 6-3 7-5 against Germany's Kristina Barrois. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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