A line judge’s worst nightmare, or, the reason why one should not leave it to Public Works personnel to fix tennis courts. (Photo: Geisel)
When one thinks of sporting events that qualify as epic, tennis matches, though talked about in tennis circles, rarely make the conversation. Usually such feats are limited to Olympic achievements or baseball games, boxing matches and the like.
This past week, however, a tennis match was played that will (or at least SHOULD) be talked about alongside the very best events ever played, in tennis or any other sport.
This one was special, and those lucky enough to catch Wednesday’s telecast on ESPN2, or better yet have tickets to the match on Court 18 at London’s All England Lawn Tennis Club, witnessed not just tennis, but sports history.
What should have been the conclusion of an early round match between unseeded, 148th-ranked Nicolas Mahut of France and 23rd seed John Isner of Tampa, Fla., took an unprecedented, historic turn.
It didn’t, however, start off as anything special. The match, which began Tuesday, went this way: Isner took the first set 6-4, Mahut took the next two 6-3, 7-6, and Isner claimed the fourth 7-6. Play was halted due to darkness and continued to Wednesday. Nothing out of the ordinary about that. Happens all the time.
What took place on Court 18 that next day doesn’t happen all the time. In fact, it’s never happened before.
First, some perspective … and remember this as we progress. Tuesday’s part of the match, four sets, lasted 2:54, longer than most matches in their entirety. The first four sets went a total of 45 games. The 2009 Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick was the longest Grand Slam championship match in history, running 77 games in all.
During Wednesday’s fifth set, the players battled a record 7 hours and 6 minutes, leaving in the dust the full-match record of 6:33, set at the 2004 French Open.
But that was only the beginning. When play was suspended (again for darkness), the score in the fifth set stood at 59-59 all after exactly 10 hours of action. Mahut and Isner walked on to the court that day as just another set of Wimbledon competitors. They walked off the court as owners of the longest match in terms of games or time in the century-plus history of tennis.
And it wasn’t even over yet.
While I’m sure the two players were focused on the job at hand, spectators, both in their Court 18 seats in London and on worldwide TV watched in awe as records were torn asunder, littering the battlefield, casualties of tennis’ equivalent of the Peloponnesian war.
Never before in Wimbledon history, which dates back to 1877, had any match — singles, doubles, men or women — gone more than 112 games (that record set in 1969). Isner and Mahut played more games than that in just the fifth set. Isner nearly closed the deal a few times, flirting with victory through four match points and only had to win the next point, but Mahut managed to counter all four.
Wednesday’s action also served a testament to how evenly matched are the two opponents. Isner fired 98 aces, Mahut 95, both trashing the previous record in a match at any tournament, which was 78. The two players racked up more than 120 of those aces in the fifth set alone! Meanwhile, Isner compiled 218 winners, Mahut 217. Isner made only 44 unforced errors, Mahut just 37.
The staff working the match was also tired, from the ball boys and girls to the umpire. You would be, too. Think about it … you could have watched the match start on TV in New York, hop a trans-Atlantic flight to London and still got to your seat at Court 18 before play was suspended.
Records weren’t the only thing broken at Court 18 on Wednesday. Even the court-side electronic scoreboard couldn’t keep up, either not programmed to go higher than 47-47 or getting stuck, but eventually it went dark and was shut off, leaving spectators to turn to good, old fashioned pen and paper to keep up with the ever-increasing score.
About the only things that weren’t broken Wednesday were both players’ serves, which meant kept play going, and going, and going …
At 58-all, more than 6 and one-half hours into Wednesday’s action, both players finally took a pee break.
Court 18 only seats 782. Those were full — duh — and people packed in three-deep along a railing. And that’s not counting the multitudes in the exterior courtyard following the action on the jumbotron projection TVs.
Shortly after 9 p.m., Mahut and Isner met at the net with Grand Slam supervisor Soeren Friemel.
Mahut said he wanted to continue playing, but was having trouble seeing. Fans chanted, “We want more!” and “Centre Court,” meaning they wanted play moved to the only stadium at the complex equipped with artificial lights, and therefore the only place play could continue at that hour. Friemel decided play would resume Thursday, and the crowd gave Isner and Mahut yet another in a series of standing ovations.
Comparisons are few and far between. The longest Major League Baseball game in history — Chicago vs. Milwuakee, 25 innings in 1984 — lasted a mere 8 hours, 6 minutes. The record for completion of the Iron Man Triathlon (2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26-mile run) is 8 hours, 4 minutes.
What cannot be overstated, under any circumstances, is the athleticism. Watching Mahut and Isner push themselves to such extremes of physical exertion was to behold a marvel with few parallels. Because those pitchers in that baseball game didn’t throw every pitch, and though I greatly admire triathletes, they’re tasked with pushing themselves forward without the burden of placing a 120 mph serve within the area the size of a placemat game after game.
When each was down, they rose to the occasion and fought back to even the score. Passing shots missed were followed up with winners. Double faults were followed by aces. Net or baseline, both players fought for every bit of footing, every tactical advantage, every shot, especially in Mahut’s case. At one point it was debatable whether he was diving for a tennis ball or trying to defend against a World Cup soccer goal for his country’s team.
Yet, through all the physicality on display, and there was tons of that to spare, strategy still played its part. Sometime during the fifth set, it became apparent that Isner’s serve speed had dropped off considerably. But at the same time, his forehand speed had increased, the player judiciously deciding how to spend his remaining energy for the most effect.
Of course, while watching the drama unfold, most of those witnessing history and caught up in the moment probably didn’t think about the fact that the rest of the tournament’s fortnight, no matter how good it is, will pale in comparison to this summer’s day. I’m sure Wimbledon officials would have loved to see such a match played out in the men’s singles final on the last day, pushing the final to “extra innings,” but it was not to be. History, with its fickle sense of humor, had other plans, and chose this innocuous moment to stage this tennis match to end all tennis matches.
Perhaps the saddest part of the entire epic battle, however, is the thought that one of these great men must lose. Theirs will be considered a classic struggle, gentlemen locked in combat, but showing such great spirit, you didn’t want either to be bested, or the match to end.
They both came to win, and battled with a fierceness that few can lay claim to, but they also did it so professionally, that even as it kept you on the edge of your seat, it was nothing less than a joy to behold.
Parting is, at last, such sweet sorrow, as fellow Englishman William Shakespeare once wrote. It had to end and so it did. On Thursday, after 11 hours and 5 minutes, Isner finally edged Mahut 70-68.
Isner said he wanted to be in the history books by making it to the Wimbledon finals. Whether that happens or not, he’s made history as one of two men, who went out on a Wednesday in June to play a tennis match, and forever changed and raised the standards by which not only tennis, but all sports should be measured.
Another sort of court battle
And on this side of The Pond, in contrast to the meticulously maintained grass on the All England courts, Mammoth’s community tennis courts are in a sad state of disrepair, and a major source of unhappiness for the Mammoth Lakes Tennis Club. MLTC President Gail Lonne has lamented the poor shape of the facility, calling the courts a “mess” and saying that “band aids” aren’t enough. The poor court conditions forced the cancellation of the 12th Annual Summer Solstice Tennis Tournament.
Asphalt courts have a 10-12 year lifespan under the best of conditions. Mammoth’s severe winter weather lessens that time considerably. Expansion and contraction due to blazing hot temperatures during the summer and bitter cold in winter have been tugging at the surface for years, but recently have begun to basically tear it apart.
Mammoth Lakes’ Public Works Department patched cracks on four of the six courts earlier this month, but only on a temporary basis, and no one within the department apparently understands the subtleties of the game (i.e. you need to be able to see the lines). The rough black swatches not only lead to unpredictable ball bounces, but also cut across fault and service lines. “Isn’t that beautiful?” Lonne quipped.
Public Works Director Ray Jarvis told The Sheet on Thursday that a contractor has been hired, Black Gold, which will fill in the gaps, and surface expert Ken Parkinson will come in to finish the courts’ surfaces. Black Gold and Parkinson were both involved in rehabbing the courts in 1998.
Parkinson estimated that he could have the courts ready for play July 15. Jarvis said that two new courts, using new post-tension concrete surfaces instead of asphalt, are scheduled to be designed this coming fiscal year, and that contingent on a combination of Measure U and R funding, $250,000 has been budgeted annually starting in 2012 to construction of the new courts.
MLTC has also said it would like to see the facility expanded from six to eight to facilitate more standard tournament play. Lonne has also indicated that the six existing courts should be replaced which Jarvis said is also on the drawing boards. Retrofitting of the existing courts’ surfaces will, he said, follow installation of the new courts.
“This is what we’ve been asking for … we got somebody’s attention … it’s good to hear,” Lonne said. She added that as soon as the courts are ready, weekend socials and lessons with pro Russ Chessler, as well as other events including the Labor Day Tennis Tourney, will resume as soon as possible.