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Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Updated: June 15, 11:26 PM ET
Isner-Mahut: The finish line

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

This is the last of a three-part series.

THURSDAY, JUNE 24

It was past 1 in the morning when Nicolas Mahut and his coach Boris Vallejo got back to their Kensington hotel.

Mahut's body ached, particularly the numerous joints that come into play during a tennis match. He stripped down and forced himself to lie in the ice-filled bathtub for another five minutes. Mahut chatted with Vallejo for about a half hour, turned off the lights and closed his eyes.

"I was pretty depleted," Mahut said. "I thought I could toss it off, but I didn't sleep well. I woke up at 5:30. Slept maybe three, four hours total."

Mohamed Lahyani, the chair umpire, was having trouble sleeping, too. He had attended a late barbeque with friends, but now his brain was racing, replaying points. He got up in the middle of the night and took a shower, hoping the warm water would help him to relax. It didn't.

It was still dark when John Isner got up to go to the bathroom in his rented flat. His coach, Craig Boynton, was half asleep when he heard the refrigerator door open. Isner had another plate of the leftover food -- chicken and mashed potatoes -- procured by Andy Roddick. And then he tried to go back to sleep.

"I think the adrenaline was going for both the boys," Boynton said. "There's a match to play and you want to win it. They knew -- we all knew -- the whole world was watching."

Mahut had another cold bath and massage at the All England Club. He actually hit a few practice balls, too. Isner, still drinking coconut water to rehydrate, stepped onto a treadmill and tried to stretch out his stiff legs. He was having difficulty walking because the friction of playing 118 games the day before had caused blisters. Three layers of skin had come off Isner's small toes, according to Boynton. The blood had seeped through his socks and sloshed around in his shoes.

Mahut also had some physical issues. His abdominal muscles ached on every stroke.

"And on that third day, I had a nose bleed," he said. "That never happened to me before. That's why I was late to play on the court."

Before he went on court, Lahyani said he was approached by a journalist, who suggested he make an announcement during the first changeover. Something to the effect that the crowd was witnessing a piece of history. Lahyani never made that announcement.

When they resumed play at 3:43 p.m., Isner immediately double-faulted. His subsequent second serve could easily have been called long, but it wasn't. Two aces led to the hold he needed. Isner said later that his only focus was on trying to hit big serves and forehand winners.

They continued on serve for another hour but, with Mahut serving at 68-69, the chemistry changed. After successfully serving to stay in the match 64 consecutive times, Mahut made a critical error at 15-all. With Isner slipping and virtually out of the point, Mahut missed a forehand drop shot, short. It seemed to rattle him.

A forehand winner, punctuated by a fist pump, and a backhand passing shot gave Isner his second service break of the match and, finally, sent him falling to the grass. At 4:48 p.m., he landed on his back, arms extended, legs splayed upward. The surreal score: 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68.

When Lahyani, feeling relief more than anything, announced the result, he made his only significant mistake of the match, switching the scores of the two tiebreakers.

The record-breaking match, consisting of 183 games, ran for 11 hours, 5 minutes. Interestingly, Mahut won 502 of the 980 points, 24 more than Isner. Between them, the two players hit 216 aces.

John Isner
John Isner paid a price for the win. He hasn't been the same caliber of player since.

Isner said he was struck by Mahut's numbed expression before they embraced.

"The heartbreak Nicolas had at the net," Isner said. "I could see the pain on his face."

Said Mahut, "That's when I realized everything. I had not prepared myself to lose that match. And then it was really hard. I didn't want to cry then on court, I wanted to keep my head high but it was really difficult."

Mahut had actually left the congested court area when Wimbledon officials guided him back for an on-court ceremony. Tim Henman and Ann Haydon-Jones presented the players with a crystal bowl and champagne flutes. They were interviewed by John Inverdale.

"It stinks someone had to lose," Isner told the crowd.

The obligatory photo opportunity followed. In one image, Isner, taller than the scoreboard bearing the 70-68 fifth-set score, smiles with hands in pockets, but seems a bit dazed. Mahut, looking to his left, away from the camera, has a sad, sour look on his face.

Sitting in the locker room, Isner's body began to shut down. His feet were bloody, his right shoulder ached and his neck wouldn't allow him to tilt his head back.

"John's not a real nostalgic guy," Boynton remembered. "There wasn't a lot of reflection. It's done. What's next?

"He was talking about fantasy baseball."

Mahut, however, was stricken. He sobbed, on and off, for nearly an hour.

"I lost my memory a little bit, forgot the whole last game," Mahut said. "I kept asking if I had made errors, or if it was him that did something [to win]. I had some blackouts, lost my mind a little bit."

EPILOGUE

Isner, playing his fourth straight day of tennis, predictably lost a second-round match to Thiemo de Bakker in straight sets. His mighty serve, broken only once by Mahut, was broken three times by the Dutch player -- in the first set alone. Isner, saying it had probably never happened to him, did not have a single ace.

He did the obligatory media tour, trading jokes with David Letterman and throwing out the first pitch for a New York Yankees game. Although Isner somehow found the strength to reach the final in Atlanta a month later, his play since the longest match seems to have suffered. Isner was ranked No. 19 coming out of Wimbledon, but today he is No. 45. His post-Wimbledon singles record, exacerbated by a right ankle injury last summer, is a middling 24-22.

"I don't think there's been a residual effect, physically, anyway," Isner's coach Boynton said. "Maybe more mentally. Playing in Washington [after Atlanta last year], I worried he was going to literally fall asleep during changeovers.

"It's an interesting question. Both guys went through so much emotional -- I won't say pain -- but they both went to places that were horribly uncomfortable. You have to wonder if, subconsciously, they can ever go there again. The brain is great tool; its job is to avoid pain. That's a long-term question but, really, we're still in the short term."

Mahut exited Wimbledon with a ranking of No. 144 and has played only five matches this year at the ATP World Tour level, losing three. He has focused on Challenger events and won the title at Courmayeur, Italy. Mahut currently is ranked No. 103.

After months of resisting, Mahut finally seems to be embracing that first-round Wimbledon match. During the offseason he sat down with French tennis writer Philippe Bouin for two weeks and the result was a book, "The Match of My Life." If he had not been a tennis player, Mahut says he would have been an actor, musician -- or sports journalist.

"It was difficult," he said. "I had to step back a little bit from everything. Not only did I speak about the match but the mistakes I made at the beginning of my career. So I can help young players with the things that I didn't do right."

John Isner
John Isner and Nicolas Mahut have bonded closely since their three-day marathon.

A year after the match, Isner has few tangible mementos. The four rackets he used went to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and charity auctions. Same with the shirts and shoes. He's not a wine drinker, so the flutes he received in the on-court ceremony went to his mother. The only thing still in his possession is the Waterford crystal with the score engraved. Mahut's white zipper-top Lacoste shirt -- one of the six he wore during the match -- shorts and a Nike sneaker from the only pair he used are on display at the Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I.

The match, in retrospect, was long on quantity and, some critics argue, short on quality.

"Oh, no," said tennis analyst Mary Carillo when the subject came up last month. "I'm not sure we want to revisit that. It was a lot of excellent serving and a lot of rotten returning. It was so long, it was special. But that doesn't mean it was a great match. It was made remarkable by its length."

Isner and Mahut have become inexorably linked. After the Giants' Bobby Thomson hit the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" off Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca in 1951, the two combatants made a nice little living from their shared history. Although Isner and Mahut may not hit the card show circuit, they have become friends.

"He's really such a good guy," Isner said. "We text each other and talk at the tournaments."

Still, they have never spoken about the match itself.

"No," said Mahut, "not one time. At one stage in my life I must talk to him about it. I want to know -- was he scared? What was he thinking? I need to know that."

Isner gave the question some thought.

"I wouldn't say I was ever scared," he said. "I just knew a lot of was riding on the match and I had to throw out all that stuff and focus."

When their careers are over, it's quite possible the match will be the thing they are remembered for most.

"Oui," said Mahut, sighing and looking down. "It's up to me to write another page in my history book, but I think it's going to be complicated."

For Isner, it might take a Grand Slam singles title.

"When all is said and done with my career, maybe that Wimbledon match is No. 2 on [the] resume," Isner said. "I need to make that happen. And I know that I can. I'm not looking to replace the Wimbledon match. But I think I've got some time to change that."

Isner said he would walk out to Court No. 18 when he arrived at Wimbledon this week.

"Maybe I'll get scheduled on that court," he said. "It wouldn't be bad playing on that court. I look forward to it."

Mahut didn't have to qualify this year, because his then-ranking of No. 91 gave him direct entry. He is hoping the schedule-maker is not in a nostalgic mood.

"No," Mahut said, shaking his head. "I have played there enough."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.