WIMBLEDON, England – When The Match That Would Not End finally did, at 70-68 in the fifth set, after a record 11 hours, 5 minutes spread over three days, the customary handshake between opponents simply would not suffice.
So when John Isner of the United States won the longest match in tennis history and went to the net to greet Nicolas Mahut of France, who – for lack of a better word – lost Thursday at Wimbledon, Isner pulled Mahut in for a hug.
“You know,” Isner told the crowd moments later, “it stinks someone had to lose.”
There were 980 points overall, and Mahut won more, 502-478. There were 711 points in the fifth set, and Mahut won more, 365-346.
But Isner won the most important point of all: the last one, which happened to be a rather nondescript backhand winner down the line. It allowed Isner to break Mahut’s serve for only the second time all match. That also was the only service break of the seemingly interminable fifth set, ending a run of 168 consecutive holds that began in the second set, all the way back on Tuesday.
Essentially, the match lasted as long as it did for two reasons: Neither man could break the other’s serve, and Wimbledon does not employ a tiebreaker in the fifth set.
“Especially once the match got past, you know, 25-all, I wasn’t really thinking,” said Isner, who led the University of Georgia to the 2007 NCAA team tennis championship. “Hitting a serve and trying to hit a forehand winner is the only thing I was doing.”
When it did conclude, Isner dropped down to the court, rolled on his back, and kicked his legs in the air. After the players briefly spoke, Mahut sat in his changeover chair, stared blankly ahead, then draped a purple-and-yellow Wimbledon towel over his head.
“It’s really painful,” Mahut said.
The 23rd seeded Isner’s 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68 victory was merely a first-round match between two relatively unheralded players. Yet it will be remembered far more distinctly, and discussed far more frequently, than many a Grand Slam final, not because of the stakes, certainly, or the quality of play, necessarily, but because of all the math involved.
“The numbers,” Mahut said, “speak for themselves.”
To wit: The 183 games and total time, both far beyond the existing records of 112 and 6:33. The 138 games and 8:11 in the fifth set alone, also records. Isner’s 112 aces in the match, and Mahut’s 103, both much higher than the old mark of 78.
“We played the greatest match ever, in the greatest place to play tennis,” said Mahut, who is ranked 148th and went through qualifying. “I thought he would make a mistake. I waited for that moment, and it never came.”
Instead, Mahut faltered – 46 hours, 39 minutes after the first point was played – and later acknowledged his abdominal muscles were aching. Both men showed remarkable resilience, even if they moved slower.