Commentary

Isner-Mahut: Not done yet

Updated: June 15, 2011, 11:26 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

This is the second of a three-part series.

Court 18 12:00
Ladies' Singles -- 2nd Round

Greta Arn (HUN) vs. Alicia Molik (AUS)

Gentlemen's Singles -- 1st Round

Nicolas Mahut (FRA) leads John Isner (USA) [23] To Finish 4-6 6-3 7-6 (7) 6-7 (3)

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 23

Suspended matches, particularly with the high volume of activity in the early going, are commonplace at the Grand Slam events. Typically, they are resumed on the same court, scheduled as the second match. The words "To Finish" are a reasonable assumption.

On June 23, 2010, Greta Arn dispatched Alicia Molik in the first match on Court 18, and there wasn't even a whiff of extraordinary in the air when Nicolas Mahut and John Isner, dressed all in white, returned to the court a little before 2 in the afternoon.

There were actually a few seats available and only a handful of television technicians hovered on the roof overlooking the south end zone. In the hours to come, Court 18 would become the hottest ticket on the grounds. It would become the locus of intense Internet traffic all around the world. John McEnroe, Tracy Austin and Boris Becker -- all Grand Slam champions, all working as broadcasters for the BBC -- would be drawn to this quaint but suddenly captivating place.

The first ball, a high service toss by Isner, went up at 2:05 p.m. He finished the game with three aces, a trend that never faded.

Wimbledon, like the Australian Open and French Open, does not employ a fifth-set tiebreaker, so after a dozen games Isner and Mahut continued doing what they had been doing. With Isner leading 7-6, ESPN analyst Pam Shriver, who had just finished working a women's match on Court No. 1, walked into the control room and asked if she could cover the match from the stands.

"They had done some look-ins, but it wasn't quite the featured deal," Shriver said. "When it got to 10-all, it became the main deal.

"Even when it became rarified air, in the 20s and 30s, the tennis was numbingly tedious."

Isner would hold for a one-game lead, and Mahut would match him. Again and again and again. With both players serving forcefully (and playing briskly), the numbers piled up quickly.

The previous Wimbledon record for the longest set -- 20-18, by Mark Philippoussis and Sjeng Schalken in a 2000 third-round match -- fell, almost too easily. At 5:45 p.m. local time, it became the longest match ever played, surpassing the 6-hour, 33-minute match between Fabrice Santoro and Arnaud Clement at the 2004 French Open. Isner took a 39-38 lead with an ace that broke Ivo Karlovic's all-time record of 78.

Sports officials, when they are doing their best work, are merely part of the background. For two days, the charismatic chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani was stoic, supremely professional in supervising the match. His focus and comportment were nearly flawless -- until the 77th game, when giving the score, his voice cracked.

[+] EnlargeJohn Isner
Oli Scarff/Getty ImagesIt was probably the last thing John Isner wanted to do, but an ice bath was in store after Day 2.

Lahyani paused, cleared his throat and laughed. The crowd giggled with him.

"I think it released the pressure a little bit," the Swede explained.

On the second day alone, a rotation of 14 linesman and 28 ball-boys and ball-girls worked the match. But Lahyani never took a bathroom break, did not take food while he was in the chair. He did massage his neck and stretch his arms and legs during some changeovers. Fatigue, he said, was not an option.

"I did not think about it," he said, "because every point could be a decisive one."

Even the cold-wired technology took on a frail, human aspect.

"I remember one moment, at 47-all," Isner said. "That was kind of crazy. Even the scoreboard got tired."

Indeed, the on-court IBM scoreboard got stuck at 47-all; programmers had not anticipated so many games. It was eventually turned off and some late-night tinkering solved the problem for the next day.

Courage may not be an appropriate word for an athletic competition, but there were times when both men summoned remarkable strength, both mental and physical.

With the score 50-49, the crowd stood and gave both men a sustained ovation. Isner, at 50-all, faced his first break points of the fifth set. His 132-mph serve was unreturnable and a big overhead brought him to deuce. Another unsolvable serve gave him the lead at 51-50.

Mahut found himself down love-30 at 53-54. The Frenchman served three aces -- his 85th, 86th and 87th of the match -- to close out Isner. Mahut saved four match points, two serving in the 66th game and the last in the 118th -- and final -- game of the day.

"I was watching this," Roger Federer said later. "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."

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

With darkness descending at 59-all, Mahut approached Lahyani.

"I think we need to stop now," Mahut said.

A brief but spirited discussion ensued; Isner wanted to continue, but Mahut said he couldn't see the ball. At 10 minutes past nine, Lahyani suspended the match for the second time. It had been going for exactly 10 hours.

"We're just fighting like we never did before," Mahut told the media. "Everyone wants to see the end, but we'll have to come back and see who wins."

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

[+] EnlargeMahut
Oli Scarff/Getty ImagesEven well into the fifth set, no one knew just how many records this match would break.

Isner was at 98 and Mahut 95 -- already well beyond the existing records.

Both players immediately were consumed with recovery and replenishment. Back in the locker room, Isner lowered his long, weary frame into the frigid waters of the hydrotherapy tub.

"I knew I had to do everything possible to get my body ready for the final day," he said. "The last thing I wanted to do was take an ice bath for 30 minutes. It was miserable."

Andy Roddick ran into Isner's coach, Craig Boynton, on the stairs outside the locker room.

"What do you need?" Roddick asked him.

Half an hour later, Roddick and his driver came back with a feast of chicken, pizza and mashed potatoes -- hardly healthy, but clearly comforting. After "pigging out," Isner and Boynton took a courtesy vehicle to their rented flat in Wimbledon Village, near the top of Wimbledon Hill Road. It was past midnight.

Mahut, concerned all that raw adrenaline might be masking injury, huddled with trainers in the locker room. He was sore, but walked into the gym and did 10 minutes on the stationary bicycle, took a light massage on his legs for 30 minutes, then headed back to his hotel, the four-star Millenium Gloucester in London's Kensington section.

His team, which had grabbed all the ice left in the locker room, placed it in his bathtub. For five minutes, as long as he could stand it, Mahut immersed himself. With the hotel restaurant closed, they found a place across the street that was still open at midnight.

They cooked him a steak and threw some pasta on the plate, too. Mahut splashed it all down with several recovery drinks. Crossing the street, talking with his coach, Boris Vallejo, he asked the question that had dogged him for two days: How was he going to break John Isner's serve?

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.