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June 21st, 2011
02:29 PM ET

Wimbledon's Marathon Men

There is nothing quite like Wimbledon. The world's most famous tennis tournament is quintessentially British, aside from the sporting action, it is an excellent excuse for eating strawberries and cream, drinking Pimm's and having a picnic on Henman Hill/Murray Mount.

Last year, it also provided an unprecedented and unforgettable spectacle: an 11-hour, 5-minute marathon match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut. The match stretched over three days before John Isner finally won 70-68 in a fifth set that lasted for 138 games and was longer in duration than any other complete match in the history of tennis. I'm exhausted just thinking about it.

If you have as much difficulty as I do in processing a match that long, let me help you out. The match lasted longer than:

  • A flight from London to Los Angeles (10 hours, 10 minutes)
  • The entire first season of Mad Men (10 hours, 19 minutes)
  • The time football World Cup Champions Spain spent playing in the entire 2010 tournament, minus injury time (11 hours)

Sadly, Isner and Mahut did not quite make it to our next milestone: the length of time it takes to watch the entire extended edition of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (11 hours, 48 minutes).

No wonder then, that the gruelling combat between two previously unheralded players had become a global phenomenon long before it had come to a close, making front-page news and trending on Twitter around the world.

Then came the re-match on the longest day of 2011. How appropriate...

In Friday's draw ceremony, Isner and Mahut were pitched against each other for a second consecutive year.

"I don't know if the tennis gods had it out for us, but they want us to meet again," said Isner. The internet rang out with echoes of John McEnroe's famous quote, "You can't be serious!"

Media reports were busy hashing out the odds on the pair being drawn against each other again on Wimbledon turf with varying results, but suffice to say it was a long shot, less than 1%. (I'm not good with numbers, but a mathematics professor writing in to The Guardian newspaper put the odds at 64/96 x 1/95, which works out as 1 in 142.5.)

Of course, sequels are always something of an anti-climax. What lasted three days last year, took just two hours, three minutes this time around. Yes, the powerful serves were there, but there were just 16 aces played compared to last year's 216.  A lack of service breaks in the opening set hinted at history repeating itself, but the illusion was soon shattered; the final point was played after 149 fewer games. As evening fell, John Isner beat Nicolas Mahut 7-6, 6-2, 7-6.

This was not a meeting of tennis greats – Roger Federer had played on Centre Court earlier in the day, Rafael Nadal the day before – but for scores of spectators at the All England Club that did not seem to matter. The prospect of watching Isner and Mahut slugging tennis balls at each other endlessly attracted queues of fans who lined walkways hoping to secure a seat on Court 3, the media filled every other available space. The pair will forever be part of Wimbledon history, something a disappointing re-match cannot take away from them. Neither can two hours of somewhat prosaic play tarnish memories of last year's marathon match.

I became so addicted to that epic battle that I almost broke my own record, for the most hours spent at work in a 24 hour period. Having watched the match whilst working a lengthy early morning shift at CNN's London bureau, I found myself unable to leave the building. I was gripped by fear that, having invested so much time and energy in watching it, I would miss the final moments. I need not have worried. Peeling myself away from the screen in the central London office, I raced home (if traveling on the Underground can ever count as racing) to find Isner and Mahut, looking more weary, but still holding serve. They continued to play until failing light stopped play for a second day.

Even now, a year on, typing out the final score – 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (7-3), 70-68 – it looks like a typo.

Bizarre? Yes. Sensational? Certainly.

Whatever John Isner and Nicolas Mahut go on to do, they will forever be bracketed together, remembered as Wimbledon's Marathon Men.

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Filed under: General • Personal musings • Sport
soundoff (One Response)
  1. Daniel Cullen

    I watched this match last year with some amazement, what a spectacle! Was it really 70-68 in the fifth set? It seemed almost inevitable that this time around it would struggle to live up to the hype.

    June 22, 2011 at 7:59 pm | Reply

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