In 2007, Mohamed Lahyani, a 41 year old native Moroccan brought up in Sweden, was sharing a cab with fellow umpire Lars Graff in Shanghai. As they approached the red lights, he noticed that the car was still speeding because the driver was dozing. He smacked the driver, who applied the brakes. Mo still requires neck treatment for the resulting whiplash injury. During Wimbledon 2010, the 44 year old umpire was appointed to the chair at the No 18 court for the first round match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut. Over the next 66 hours, these three spent more than 11 hours on court while the world watched them deliver at the highest level. The ball boys and line judges get changed every 75 minutes but the poor umpire had to sit there. On the second day of the match, two groups of 14 linespeople and four groups of 28 ballboys and ballgirls were used in a rotation.
Breaking serve is very important in tennis, isn’t it? For three successive years, both Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker reached Wimbledon Finals. These two were due for the fourth successive final in 1991. At semi-final stage, Edberg had to beat Michael Stich but was beaten instead 4–6, 7–6, 7–6, 7–6 without breaking his service once. Jimmy van Alen devised tiebreakers in 1965 to speed up the game, though it took a few more years before it was adopted in grand slams. In 1969, 41 year old Gonzales saved seven match points to beat Pasareli in five sets 22–24, 1–6, 16–14, 6–3, 11–9. Jimmy died on Jul 3, 1991, after striking his head in a fall at his home, the day Stich beat Edberg. It prompted his famous quote: “If he hadn’t lived, Michael and I might still be out there playing”. Sure they did stop playing after three tiebreaks and four sets. Nicolas Mahut could not do the same against John Isner. He could seal the game in the fourth set tie-break but Isner prevailed to force the fifth one. Breaking serve is vitally important in fifth set.
28 year old Nicolas Mahut is a doubles expert. In 2007, he was runner up to Andy Roddick at Queen’s failing to convert his championship point in second set tiebreak. He broke into top 50 but injuries and bad results saw him drop below 100 which meant that he had to play three qualifying games to enter the main draw of Wimbledon 2010.
He won the second game in five sets beating Alex Bogdanovic 24-22. Only six months earlier, he was ready to quit the game. But his love for Wimbledon, he was the junior champion here, kept him going.
I watched him play the longest tennis match ever against John Isner, a 6’9″ giant, when the two were trying to complete the fifth set of the match that started on Tuesday. At 491 minutes and 138 games, the last set itself lasted longer than any other match at Wimbledon. This was an endurance fest – immovable object versus irresistible force.
John Isner, a graduate from University of Georgia came to Wimbledon with the distinction as the most improved player in 2009. He worked hard on his stamina by practising for several hours in Florida heat. His coach Craig Boynton presciently predicted that Isner could play for 10 hours under London sun. The second highest American seed, behind Andy Roddick, was ranked #19 but the tournament committee placed him 24th due to his lack of experience in grass. Radek Stepanek withdrew and he played Mahut as the 23rd seed and was expected to sweep him off.
A routine first-round match started on Tue 22nd June, 2010 at 6.09pm. A few other matches were scheduled on court 18, but as this match progressed, they were moved elsewhere. Nothing remarkable happened in the first two sets that lasted 32 and 29 minutes. Despite more than 100 aces over the course of the match, Isner had served only 4 in these two sets. The play was suspended at 9.07pm due to bad light when Mahut failed to finish the match in the fourth set tie-break. The scoreboard at the end of first day read an unremarkable 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6 with Isner first.
These two were scheduled third in the order of play on Wednesday Jun 23rd. Play began at 2.05pm and halted at 9.13pm. But this time the scoreboard read a remarkable 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 59-59. Actually the scoreboard was stuck on 47-47. It was later revealed that IBM program had a limit of 47-47 for the on-court scoreboard while the online version could not get past 50-50. The website reset the score to zero and requested its viewers to add 50 instead. While Mahut and Isner were recovering that night, or perhaps not, IBM set stall to address the glitch in their software. What a record breaking match indeed!
The prize money for losing the first round match was £11,250. Ginepri lost his first round match to Robin Roderling 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 after playing 137 points. A deserving performance to earn just over £11k when you compare him with Casey Dellacqua, of Australia, and Anastasia Pivovarova, of Russia. They both one a single game in their first round matches. 980 points were played between Isner and Mahut where Nicolas won 502 points setting a new record for most points won in a match. His reward, £11.47 per point or less than £17 per minute.
Professional players are expected to play tough to justify their earnings. Mike Atherton once batted almost as long as this match. He scored 185 to salvage a draw with South Africa owing to his 643 minute vigil. While a drawn football match can be decided on penalties, unfortunately, or fortunately, tennis does not offer draws.
Several players spoke to the press at the end of that day. One of them was Roger Federer. He dropped a set in his second round match and was on the verge of dropping another. That would have been press-worthy. Instead he was asked about this still unfinished match. His response:
“In some ways this is unheard of in our game and normally there are breaks in tennis matches, but John is barely moving but he is able to produce good serves when he has to. It’s so impressive. They are going to be tired the next day, the next week, the next month. It was too much.”
Once the scoreboard got stuck on 47-47, it seemed Isner was also stuck. He would shuffle along the baseline either to serve or receive. Isner confirmed what spectators noticed. He said: “I was just hitting a serve and trying to hit a forehand winner. He was matching me. Even if I got it back, he was on top of the net to put the ball away. It was tough. I lost track of the score after 25-all.” I noticed some people commenting in online forums, that same evening, that it was hardly a tennis match. Not sure whether they watched either whole or big chunks of it. Championship football is also telecast on screen. One gets to see equally enthralling matches even if the top Premiership sides are not competing. In the Wimbledon final a year earlier Federer beat Roddick 16-14 breaking him for the first time in the match in the 30th game. I perhaps started watching at 28-28. And it was the best tennis that I saw, gorgeous forehands, beautiful volleys and some wonderful angles, especially when you view those shots in the context of the game.
The players were uncomfortable but they were competing. Serve must be broken but these two kept holding, almost through a divine right. Those who started earlier and watched the game at 10-10, 25-25, 40-40 and then 50-50 must have been mesmerised. I was. Both players wanted to continue the match till someone broke. But they had to return one last time. Mahut ultimately served 64 times to stay in the match, 55 times in one day. His idol, Pete Sampras later commented:
“I know from facing some of the great servers in the game, like Goran Ivanisevic, how difficult it is to keep concentrating. You can hold serve for what seems like an eternity, maybe 15, 18 games and then something gives. Someone has to blink. You lose concentration on a ball toss on a second serve and double fault and then the other guy spears a lucky return, suddenly you’re down 0-30 and it’s easy to be broken.”
The previous longest match was in the first round of the French Open in 2004, when Fabrice Santoro, of France, beat Arnaud Clément, of France, 6–4, 6–3, 6–7, 3–6, 16-14 in six hours and 33 minutes. At that point, Isner and Mahut were only warming up.
There is more to the game than the quality of tennis. Credit should be given to the ability to stand when your body refuses. What about resilience? And will-power? I think they were in a zone and forgot what the crowd had to say. In the same week Romanian player Hanescu won the first two sets in tie-break but failed to convert four match points in the third. Unlike Isner and Mahut, he forfeit the match. He was suffering from an injury and was upset with the crowd when the match entered final set. The umpire warned him for abusing spectators. After that, he deliberately foot-faulted, lost three games and chose to forfeit, spitting at the crowd before leaving the court.
On Thursday, Jun 24th 2010, play resumed soon after 3.30pm. The battle continued for another hour. After 168 consecutive games had gone to the server, at 69-68, Mahut failed to hold his. This was seen several times during the match. Mahut serves, Isner returns, Nicolas approaches the net. Only this time, he hit the ball so deep that John had enough time to play a backhand down the line. Mahut was helpless as the winner sailed past.
John fell on the grass. He kicked his legs in the air. Then he approached the net to shake hands with Mahut. The players were asked to stay on the court. Nicolas was seen with a towel over his head for what appeared to be an eternity. The players and the judge were photographed near the historic scoreboard and Tim Henman presented mementos. The consolation prize for Mahut was a crystal bowl. Lahyani was presented with a set of cufflinks and a club tie and his role was appreciated in a letter from the Wimbledon chairman.
980 points were played over 665 minutes which included 490 winners. Mahut won 502 points but lost the match after 183 games. The last set continued for 138 games over 491 minutes. Both players served more than 100 aces each for a staggering 215 in total. And how many service breaks – just 3! The final score was 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6 and 70-68 but the umpire announced the score incorrectly, accidentally switching the scores of the two tie-break sets.
Mahut collapsed in the locker room after the match. An almost crying, barely able to stand Frenchman informed his local press: “I hope that my girlfriend’s son watched me. For three years I’ve been telling him that in life you need to work hard. I hope he learnt from this.”
Three hours later, he was back on the same court to play his doubles match. He lost.
John Isner played Dutch player Thiemo De Bakker in second round. He had served for 85 games without being broken. Bakker broke him thrice in the first set. John held his serve five times; lost it six times to lose the match 6-0, 6-3, 6-2.
Nicolas Mahut wrote a book called ‘Le Match de ma Vie’. He describes the moment of John’s victory: “I don’t understand. How can the match end like this? For two days, I serve to remain in the match against an ace machine and for two days, I hold firm … Now I feel nothing, I hear nothing. Just the cold. An intense cold which grips my body and my heart.”
And his sentiments about a defeat after an 11-hour battle: “The gap is enormous between what I feel and what spectators and journalists feel. I realise nothing. I am disconnected. My feet are heavy. I feel I’m alone in the world.”
There is a plaque outside wall of Court 18 that reads, “The Longest Match was played on No 18 court, 22nd-24th June 2010. John Isner (USA) beat Nicolas Mahut (Fr) 6-4 3-6 6-7 (7-9) 7-6 (7-3) 70-68.” Along the oval edges at the bottom, one can read, “Match duration: 11 hours 5 minutes.”
The friends returned to Wimbledon 2011. John had dropped to 46 but Nicolas improved his ranking to 99. He did not have to qualify this year. They talked about playing doubles together. There were plans to practise together on Saturday, until the draw was announced. They were placed against each other once again. Mahut lost 7-6, 6-2, 7-6.