On and on and on, and on some more, they played – longer than anyone ever had before. And still there was no winner.
John Isner of Tampa, Fla., and Nicolas Mahut of France were tied at 59-59 in the fifth set at Wimbledon after exactly 10 hours of action when play was suspended because of darkness Wednesday night. It is by far the longest match in terms of games or time in the century-plus history of tennis.
“Nothing like this will ever happen again. Ever,” Isner said.
The first-round match already had been suspended because of fading light Tuesday night after the fourth set.
The 23rd-seeded Isner and the 148th-ranked Mahut, who needed to qualify to get into the tournament, shared a court for 7 hours, 6 minutes in Wednesday’s fifth set alone, enough to break the full-match record of 6:33, set at the 2004 French Open.
Never before in the history of Wimbledon, which first was contested in 1877, had any match – singles or doubles, men or women – lasted more than 112 games, a mark set in 1969. Isner and Mahut played more games than that in just the fifth set, and still did not determine a victor, although the American came close: He had four match points – four chances to end things by winning the next point – but Mahut saved each one.
“He’s serving fantastic. I’m serving fantastic. That’s really all there is to it,” Isner said. “I’d like to see the stats and see what the ace count looks like for both of us.”
Well, here they are: Isner hit 98 aces, Mahut 95 – both eclipsing the previous high in a match at any tournament, 78. All the numbers were truly astounding: They played 881 points (Mahut took 452, Isner 429), 612 in the fifth set (315 for Mahut, 297 for Isner).
Isner compiled 218 winners, Mahut 217. Isner made only 44 unforced errors, Mahut 37.
There were zero service breaks in the fifth set, which is why the end never arrived Wednesday.
Even a courtside electronic scoreboard couldn’t keep up, getting stuck at 47-47 when the score really had risen to 48-48, then eventually going dark entirely.
Yet the pair played on.
And this cannot be emphasized enough: They are not finished.
After 118 games, no one had won.
The match will continue, stretching into a third day. At least Wimbledon gave them a bit of a break, saying the match would not pick up again before 3:30 p.m. Thursday.
“He’s just a champ. We’re just fighting like we never did before,” Mahut said. “Someone has to win, so we’ll come back tomorrow and see who is going to win the match.”
At 58-all, more than 6 1/2 hours into Wednesday’s action, both players took a bathroom break – and, frankly, who could blame them? Not much later, shortly after 9 p.m., Mahut and Isner approached the net to discuss with a Grand Slam supervisor, Soeren Friemel, whether to keep going.
“I want to play,” Mahut said, “but I can’t see.”
Fans began chanting, “We want more! We want more!” Then they screamed in unison, “Centre Court! Centre Court!” – the only stadium at the All England Club equipped with artificial lights, and therefore the only place play could continue at that hour. When Friemel decided they would stop at that moment and resume Thursday, spectators saluted Isner and Mahut with a standing ovation.
“I have almost no words anymore watching this,” 16-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer said. “It’s beyond anything I’ve ever seen and could imagine. I don’t know how their bodies must feel the next day, the next week, the next month. This is incredible tennis.”
Other Wimbledon competitors were glued to locker-room TVs, while some players headed out to the court to see if they could catch a glimpse in person. That was easier said than done, because the stands at the relatively tiny Court 18 – its official capacity is 782 – were full, and people packed in three-or-more deep along a railing.
“I don’t think I’d move. I think if you moved, you lose your seat,” Venus Williams said.
“It’s a marathon,” she added, then corrected herself: “It’s longer than a marathon.”
Roddick tweeted that it was “unreal.”
Not that anyone will ever remember, but for the record Tuesday’s portion of the match went this way: Isner won the first set 6-4, Mahut took the next two 6-3, 7-6 (7), and Isner claimed the fourth 7-6 (3).
That portion lasted 2:54, longer than many entire matches, but these guys were just getting started. The first four sets encompassed a total of 45 games, less than half of the fifth set alone. To put it in some more perspective: The 2009 Wimbledon final between Federer and Andy Roddick was the longest Grand Slam championship match in history, running 77 games in all.
Mahut actually has some recent experience in such matters: He won a four-hour match in the second round of qualifying last week that ended 24-22 in the third set.
Isner and Mahut began Wednesday at 2:04 p.m., with the court bathed in sunlight and in heat that topped 80 degrees. As play carried on, shadows crept across the court, and the well-manicured blades of green grass along both baselines wore away, leaving patches of beige dirt. By the time the players left the court, the moon was rising overhead.
Organizers moved other matches that were supposed to be played on the same court, and postponed Isner’s doubles match that happened to be on Wednesday’s schedule.
While this was only a first-round match, the stakes were big for the participants. Isner lost his only previous match at Wimbledon, exiting in the first round in 2008, while Mahut lost in the first round at the All England Club each of the past two years.
Because Isner served first in the fifth set, Mahut faced the difficult task of always trailing while serving, knowing that if he were to get broken, he would lose.
Both players showed signs of fatigue and frustration.
Seeking some extra energy, Isner wolfed down a sandwich and sipped water during one changeover, and he scarfed down a banana at another. At the end of the day, he was gritting his teeth on serves, rubbing his back or putting his hands on his knees while sucking air between points, and occasionally deciding not to chase shots.
During one break, Mahut was visited by a tournament doctor and given some pills to swallow, and later had a finger taped. After missing one shot, Mahut dropped to his knees and covered his head with both hands. Somehow, Mahut summoned the strength to dive for a shot in the fifth set’s 117th game – yes, you read that number correctly.
Even chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani, sitting in his perch long enough to have taken a trans-Atlantic flight, seemed to be tired. He tried to stay loose by massaging his neck or stretching his legs, and as the match dragged on, Lahyani paused while reciting the score, as if to make sure he had the count correct.
“This is one of the few times where I feel bad for the umpire,” well-known official-berater John McEnroe joked on BBC’s TV coverage.
It might not necessarily have been the most scintillating tennis, given that so many points were so brief, often consisting of merely an unreturned serve, followed by both players shuffling along the baseline to get in position for the next point.
The match was without a doubt riveting from this standpoint: Who would falter, even for a split second, on a solitary stroke – enough to finally turn control one way or the other? Who would wilt first, physically or mentally?
“Maybe they should agree on playing a tiebreak if it’s 50-all,” 2008 Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic mused. “That’s maybe one of the solutions.”
It was a test of wills tough to compare to another individual sport – unless, perhaps, a golf tournament’s playoff extended for, say, 36 holes. The longest Major League Baseball game in history lasted a mere 8 hours, 6 minutes.
And to think: Isner vs. Mahut could have concluded much, much earlier in the day.
Isner held a match point all the way back in the 20th game of the fifth set, when he was ahead 10-9 with Mahut serving. Mahut double-faulted twice to give Isner a break point and match point, but the Frenchman erased it with an ace.
Hard to believe, perhaps, but there wasn’t another break point or match point for either player until the set’s 66th game, with Isner ahead 33-32.
Isner smacked a backhand return winner down the line to go ahead 15-40, earning two match points, then waved his right hand to signal to the overflowing crowd to cheer louder. But he couldn’t convert either chance. Mahut delivered a volley winner to erase the first, then a service winner on the second.
Two points later, Isner ceded the game by putting a forehand return into the net, prompting some fans backing Mahut to chant, “Nico! Nico! Nico!”
In the 71st game, with Isner serving, he faced a deuce. Two more points for Mahut would have allowed the Frenchman to serve for the match. But Isner delivered a second-serve ace at 124 mph, followed by a service winner.
36-35 for Isner.
Mahut earned his first break points of the fifth set in – believe it or not – the 101st game, when Isner missed a forehand wide to fall behind 15-40. Isner saved the first with a service winner at 132 mph. On the second, Mahut tried a lob – perhaps not the ideal strategy against the 6-foot-9 Isner – and the American hit an overhead winner. Two more service winners ended the game.
51-50 for Isner.
An opening for Isner came in the 108th game, when Mahut missed a backhand, then a forehand, to fall behind love-30, putting the American two points away from victory. But Mahut came up with a volley winner, then three consecutive aces.
In what would wind up being the final game of the day, with Isner ahead 59-58, Mahut’s double-fault – his 21st – afforded the American one more match point, just over six hours after the first one. Mahut delivered again, smacking an ace to get to deuce. Isner then shanked a return long, crouched, and bit his white T-shirt. On the next point, Isner’s backhand return sailed wide.
And that’s where they will resume, once more, the 25-year-old Isner and the 28-year-old Mahut, striving to be better than the other just long enough to win.