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Wednesday, June 23, 2010
No end in sight for 10-hour marathon

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- At some point, maybe around the 40th game of the ultimate set -- or was it the 50th? -- this ceased to be a tennis match and began to feel more like a hazy, feverish dream.

John Isner, the 6-foot-9 former Georgia Bulldog, and Nicolas Mahut, a game 28-year-old Frenchman, just stood on the baseline of a sun-splashed Court 18, red-faced and sodden, and hit bomb after bomb. Serves were rarely threatened. Time stood still. Tennis isn't generally associated with bravery, but this truly was sterling stuff -- two unflinching, deeply committed professionals giving every ounce of themselves for as long as they could.

John Isner
The 10-hour (and counting) match is nearly four hours longer than the previous record.

Maybe longer. How their red-hot right shoulders did not come off their hinges is something that might never be fully understood. For the last hour or so, Isner looked like a punch-drunk boxer staggering around the baseline but Mahut seemed remarkably fresh.

Ultimately, some 7 hours and 6 minutes after the fifth set of their wildly ludicrous match continued from Tuesday began, there was no resolution. The match was suspended Wednesday evening for the second straight day, this time with the score 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 59-59.

Yes, 59-all. The match has gone exactly 10 hours -- and counting.

Isner wanted to continue in the gathering darkness well past 9 p.m. local time, but when Mahut said he couldn't see the ball, tournament officials agreed to suspend the first-round match.

"Nothing like this will ever happen again. Ever," an exhausted Isner said afterward. "He was serving fantastic, I was serving fantastic. I'd like to see how the ace count looks for both of us."

Ridiculous, of course. Isner has recorded 98 aces, 20 more than the previous record set by Ivo Karlovic in a Croatia Davis Cup match last year. Mahut (95) has broken the previous standard, as well.

Understandably, all kinds of records will be set by the time it finally ends:

The longest match ever in the history of tennis: The previous record, in terms of elapsed time, belonged to Fabrice Santoro and Arnaud Clement in the 2004 French Open. Santoro finally prevailed after 6 hours, 33 minutes. For context (which might not be possible -- or advisable), consider that the fifth set alone of Isner-Mahut broke the old record by a wide margin.

The longest set in tennis history: The previous Wimbledon record was 20-18, belonging to Mark Philippoussis and Sjeng Schalken in a third-round match in 2000. This has broken that by 80 games.

The longest previous singles match at Wimbledon was 21 years ago, when Greg Holmes beat fellow American Todd Witsken 14-12 in the fifth set in 5 hours and 28 minutes. The longest doubles match was 6 hours and 9 minutes.

The incredible thing? Mahut actually beat Great Britain's Alex Bogdanovic 24-22 in the third set of their second-round qualifying match exactly one week ago.

"He's just a champion," Mahut said Wednesday after play was suspended, shaking his head. "We're just fighting like we never did before. Everyone wants to see the end, but we'll have to come back and see who wins."

Mahut, who is ranked No. 149 in the world, has saved four match points, two in the 66th game and the last -- in dramatic fashion -- in the 118th game. Mahut saw only two break points -- both in the 101st game.

Wimbledon, like the Australian Open and French Open, does not employ the tiebreaker in the fifth set. This marathon match might create a movement to change that. At 48-49, Novak Djokovic jokingly suggested a tiebreaker if it reached 50-all.

Remember the spectacular fifth set in the men's final last year, won by Roger Federer, 16-14, over Andy Roddick? That quaint little contest would have fit neatly into the trunk of this gargantuan affair. Federer and Roddick whacked away heroically for a total of 77 games; the fifth set alone between Isner and Mahut stands at a staggering 118.

Like Alice in Wonderland, it just got curiouser and curiouser. When you began to sense a weakness in one of the exhausted players, when you thought the match might be on the verge of completion, on and on and on it went. In the locker room, all the players on site watched, transfixed.

Court 18 is a show court, nestled up against the broadcast center at the All England Club. Spectators can look down from the roof and, as the match spun on, more and more gathered around the court as if flocking to a warm fire. They were hanging off walkways and were elbow-to-elbow everywhere with even a slight vantage point.

It was a remarkable scene and, quite obviously, an occasion. The drama was impressive, too. Greg Rusedski, the BBC announcer and a former player, grew more and more incredulous. Even the impassive chair umpire, Mohamed Lahyani, started to sound slightly irritated when he announced the score after each game. In the late going, it got so absurd that there was sometimes nervous laughter when the score was given. After the 77th game, Lahyani's voice cracked and even he was forced to smile.

Nicolas Mahut
Nicolas Mahut and John Isner combined to serve 193 aces.

The first day's action had been good enough; Isner needed a tiebreaker to force the fifth set, and the match was suspended because of darkness. After Greta Arn dispatched Alicia Molik, the two combatants took to the court.

They just couldn't come close to breaking each other's serves. But as the set progressed, Isner seemed to tire. Yet he kept cranking out those aces. Isner moved reasonably well for one so large and showed a deft touch at the net.

In the 70th game, the longest rally of the fifth set -- 17 strokes -- left Isner bent over and winded on the baseline. In the 71st game, with Isner serving, Mahut forced his fourth deuce of the frame. And then Isner ripped a 124 mph second serve to bail himself out.

Still, you got the idea that Isner needed to end the match quickly; of course, that same thought first manifested itself around the 50th game. With the match in the 40s, Andy Roddick voiced a growing concern via his Twitter account, asking "Seriously..... doesn't anyone have to pee ? umpires included."

With Isner leading 50-49, the crowd stood and roared, giving the two players a sustained ovation before the 100th game of the fifth set. Isner faced his first break points of the fifth set -- nearly six hours in -- and saved them both. An unreturnable 132 mph serve and a huge overhead got him to deuce, and another impossible serve gave him a 51-50 lead.

Isner had Mahut at love-30 at 53-54, but Mahut served three aces -- his 85th, 86th and 87th of the match -- to close out the game.

"It makes me proud to be a tennis player," said John McEnroe, working the BBC broadcast, after the 111th game. "It looks like Isner is about to fall over."

At 58-all, nearly six hours into the fifth set, the two players took their first bathroom break.

"I love this," Roger Federer said in an interview. "I'm sure they don't love this, but in some ways this is unheard of in our game. I don't know if I was laughing or crying."

Isner was laughing and applauding when Mahut, serving at 58-all, threw himself at a shot and threw his racket.

With Mahut serving at 58-59, Isner engineered a fourth match point. Naturally, he responded with yet another ace.

At 59-all, Mahut approached the chair and said simply, "I think we need to stop now."

After a spirited discussion, the decision was made. The players will come back Thursday. So will the rest of the tennis world -- to see the conclusion of one of the game's most extraordinary matches ever played.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.