Commentary

Isner-Mahut epic headlines 2010

Updated: December 14, 2010, 2:50 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

The first day, Tuesday, June 22, I needed some air after more than three hours of grinding out a notebook on my laptop. I bounced up the stairs of the Wimbledon broadcast center and emerged at my favorite spot at the All England Club: the roof that overlooks Court 18.

It was approaching dusk and John Isner and Nicolas Mahut were well into the fourth set, which the young American needed to extend the match after losing a third-set tiebreaker. Isner eventually won another tiebreaker. The match, just short of three hours but visited by darkness, was suspended.

On Wednesday, they played 7 hours, 6 minutes and somehow managed to split 118 games. John McEnroe and Tracy Austin, students of tennis history, were among those who watched from the stands. The French journeyman equaled Isner, serving with authority -- and returning with something far less. I stopped by to watch four different times, thinking the break would come. As most sports fans know now, it never did. Darkness, again, intervened.

Thursday was a bright day and when the two players walked back onto the court, the roof was jammed. I watched the match from ESPN's research room, which runs the length of half the court with huge windows. The 6-foot-9 Isner came up with two passing shots in the final game and fell to his back. I will never forget the look of anguish on Mahut's pink, overheated face.

This, among many other words, is what I wrote for ESPN.com:

    Savor this score, for you will probably never see its kind again: 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68.

    Over three days that were not once visited by rain, in a match that consumed 11 hours, 5 minutes -- a cartoonish number that somehow fails to capture this raw, brutal struggle that consisted of 183 games -- Isner was just a few, well-timed shots better than Mahut in the end. The fifth set ran 8 hours, 11 minutes -- 98 minutes more than the longest match on record. Isner stroked a record 112 aces, while Mahut's 103 aces were 25 better than the previous record.

Even in a year when Rafael Nadal won three of the four majors, a celebration of the 2010 men's tennis season has to begin with the match that wouldn't end.

"It's great, something Nic and I will share forever, really," Isner said. "I never said five words to the guy prior to the match. When I see him in the locker room at tournaments, we can share this."

So can we all. Now, one month before the balls start flying in Melbourne, let's savor the recent ATP World Tour season:

Rafa gets the hat trick

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
Stan Honda/AFP/Getty ImagesWill Rafael Nadal creep closer to Roger Federer's Slam record in 2011?

Rafael Nadal, after winning the past three Grand Slam singles titles, will head Down Under and attempt to complete the Rafa Slam. The last man in position to win four straight majors? Rod Laver, who won all four in 1969.

Roger Federer won three of four majors three times (2004, 2006, 2007), but never consecutively. Nadal had one of the greatest seasons in recent history, finishing with a record of 71-10, seven titles and more than $8.5 million in prize money.

Nadal was 25-1 in majors, reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, losing to Andy Murray, then running the table the rest of the way -- on clay at Roland Garros, Wimbledon's grass and the hard courts of New York. He went 22-0 during the spring clay season, winning titles in Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid and Paris.

More importantly, he showed restraint, playing in fewer events and finishing the season stronger than ever. As a result, the arms race between Federer and Nadal is now a plausible contest. The 29-year-old Federer has 16 majors, compared to nine for the 24-year-old Spaniard.

The 2011 season could feature the critical-mass moments in their great rivalry and, ultimately, who owns the all-time record.

Federer comes back to the field

It happened on July 5, after Wimbledon.

When Federer was displaced at No. 2 by Novak Djokovic, it was the first time in six years and eight months that he wasn't one of the two top-ranked players. He spent 11 weeks at No. 3, suffered through a seven-month title drought and experienced closing issues.

Federer lost four matches in which he held match points, the most of his career: three in the third round at Indian Wells against Marcos Baghdatis, one in the fourth round at Miami against Tomas Berdych, two in the semifinals at the U.S. Open against Djokovic and five in the recent Paris semifinals against Gael Monfils.

And yet, an emphatic, season-ending victory over Nadal proved Federer might still have a few miles left on the tires. Federer, aggressive in the big moments, beat Nadal 6-3, 3-6, 1-6 in the Barclay's finale, suggesting that 2011 might not be a walkover for Rafa.

The annual Murray tease

I will not be picking Andy Murray to win any more Grand Slams. Ever.

Based on his terrific showing in the Australian Open -- he beat Rafa in the quarters, then Marin Cilic in the semifinals before losing to Federer in the final -- I figured the feisty Scot would be a good choice to break through with his first major at Wimbledon. Sure, he got to the semis, where he lost to Nadal in straight sets. At the U.S. Open, he lost in the third round to Stanislas Wawrinka. Murray won the first set and then, horribly, lost the last three.

Ever the perfectionist, Murray just hates to hit the ball out in big moments, so he centers it and gets beaten by the tour's elite. I once thought he was going to win several majors; maybe he's really just Elena Dementieva with a serve.

Bryan Bros blow past Woodies

[+] EnlargeMike and Bob Bryan
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty ImagesThe Bryan Brothers are two Slams shy of the all-time record.

Bob and Mike Bryan won their 62nd doubles title in Los Angeles on Aug. 1, going one better than Australians Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde. Their total now stands at 67 -- and counting. The Bryans won two Grand Slam doubles crowns (the Australian and U.S. Opens) and four Masters 1000 titles (in Rome, Madrid, Toronto and Cincinnati). At the age of 32, they have a good chance to beat the mark of 79 doubles titles, owned by Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver. With nine majors, the Bryans trail the Woodies by two -- and Navratilova and Shriver by 12.

Serbia prevails in Davis Cup

Serbia became the 13th nation to win the Davis Cup when Novak Djokovic and Viktor Troicki won their singles matches to slide past France, 3-2. Troicki won the clincher in straight sets over Michael Llodra. France was without Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Etcetera

Tomas Berdych, the 25-year-old from the Czech Republic, earned his first year-end top-10 ranking, while Sweden's Robin Soderling, 26, recorded his second.

Following the WTA's example, the ATP World Tour extended its offseason to seven weeks, starting in 2012.

Nadal not only stole Federer's thunder, winning three majors -- but he also lifted the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award, taking the vote of his peers for the first time after Federer's run of six straight.

Mardy Fish lost more than 30 pounds and produced a torrid summer stretch of 19-2, taking titles at Newport and Atlanta, and reaching the final at Cincinnati before losing to Djokovic in the fourth round of the U.S. Open.

Speaking of the Open, 18-year-old American Ryan Harrison qualified his way into the main draw and stunned No. 17-ranked Ivan Ljubicic in the first round, seeing his ranking soar 50 spots to No. 170.

Taylor Dent retired at the age of 29, while James Blake struggled at the age of 30, going 15-17 in singles matches.

Congratulations to the ATP year-end award winners: Rohan Bopanna and Aisam Ul-Haq Quresi (Arthur Ashe Humanitarians of the Year), Andrey Golubev (Most Improved), Tobias Kamke (Newcomer of the Year), Robin Haase: (Comeback Player of the Year).

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.