Commentary

Isner-Mahut rematch rhetoric ramps up

Originally Published: June 13, 2011
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- No way. You're kidding. Get out. And, since this is tennis, you cannot be serious.

Yes, it happened. John Isner and Nicolas Mahut have been drawn to play in the first round of Wimbledon, again. A shout went up during the draw ceremony when their names were pulled out one after the other, jaws collectively dropping at a coincidence almost as freakish as their match last year. "Lightning strikes twice," said bemused referee Andrew Jarrett, holding the draw chip in his hand.

Would you believe it? Last time, they went three days, played for 11 hours and ended 70-68 in the fifth set. Now, the Longest Match Ever will have a Part 2.

In the past four days, it has been all anyone can talk about -- on the grounds, online, around Wimbledon village. There have been debates about where the match should be played. Court 18 again? Some say that's too cruel, while others suggest Centre Court, to reflect the huge interest, but is that justified for a match between two unseeded players? And what about the umpire? Mohamed Lahyani again? The showman of officialdom certainly proved his chops last time, not even taking a bathroom break, but maybe that would be playing into things a little too much.

In the end, officials turned a blind eye to the context and scheduled it fourth up on the new Court 3, the fourth-largest stadium. With three matches to complete first and rain forecast for Tuesday, it looks like this year's Isner-Mahut could be all about waiting for the match to get started, not finish.

When the draw was announced, the two players were as stunned as everyone else. Mahut related getting this simple text from Isner: :(

By the time they ran into each other in the locker room afterward, they also saw the funny side. "Gave each other high-fives and laughed about it," Isner told reporters Sunday. "My first thought was 'The draw is rigged!' But it's obviously not."

Virtual strangers before that match, the two are now close friends and had planned to practice together before the tournament. Those plans had to be scrapped.

But despite some mixed feelings, they have joined in all the banter. "We made a little bet on the name of the umpire," Mahut told French radio. "Five dollars. He thinks it'll be the same as last year; me, no."

They'll find out who got it right when the umpire's lineup is announced in the morning before the start of play.

Walking around the grounds at Wimbledon, they are constantly getting comments on the rematch. "Like, 'Are you going to keep it under 11 hours this time?' or 'Is it going to be 80-78?'" Isner said. "It's getting pretty old."

But know this: Once they walk out, the fun will be over. "He and I have big ambitions for this tournament," Mahut said. "We are not replaying last year's match.

A year ago, it was the Frenchman who came off the court having lost, and while he understands the hype around the rematch, he will not be playing simply to take part in the show. "For me it's different," he said. "It's another opportunity to play John.

"I don't want to go out in the first round. I want to go deep at Wimbledon. It's a match very different from others, but I'll try to do more than last year, if it's possible. It's a first round, difficult for sure, but I don't fear anyone on grass, my best surface."

Isner, for his part, is also tired of being remembered for first-round matches. He is coming into this year's Wimbledon having lost a five-set match to Rafael Nadal in the first round of the French Open. And despite the accolades and instant fame that came with playing the longest match, he insisted he wanted to be remembered for something more than what was, in the end, just a first-round victory. "I wanted to put the match behind me and thought it would be tough coming into Wimbledon and I'd get a lot of questions," Isner said. "But now that I have him again it's almost impossible to put last year's match behind me."

Already, the All England Club has put up a plaque on Court 18 that reads:

The Longest Match
Was played on No. 18 Court
22-24 July 2010
John Isner beat Nicolas Mahut
6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3),
Match duration 11 hours, five minutes

It is an understated reminder of how the two galvanized the globe last year. By the end, all longevity records for tennis matches had been not just broken, but blown to smithereens. The last set alone was longer than the previous longest match, which was played for 6 hours, 33 minutes over two sessions.

"The first sort of five hours nobody cared too much. It's the next five that made the news," Roger Federer recalled. "At that point we were all glued to the TV, obviously."

Yet that match was not simply statistics. The tennis itself was short and brutish. But as it went on and on and the world gathered to watch, Isner and Mahut showed everyone what tennis players are made of. This was no historic encounter between legendary champions like Federer and Nadal. It was two rank-and-file pros -- Mahut a mere qualifier, Isner just a few years removed from playing college tennis. But they defied any tennis match in history or practical imagination. No complaints, no reaction, no thought of stopping. Physically, it was a huge effort; mentally even more so.

"I would have been like 'Peace' at that point," Serena Williams mused.

The night the match ended, Mahut received a text from Nadal, telling him what an example he had been to kids around the world.

"The attitude and the example what they show the rest of the tour and they show the kids was, in my opinion, fantastic," Nadal told reporters last week. "With the right attitude all the time, fighting all the time, spending 11 hours on court."

Afterward, Isner's toes were shredded to pieces. And so was Mahut's heart.

Isner next appeared at his home event in Atlanta, burnishing his reputation by playing three 2½-hour matches in the brutal heat. Soon after, he gave way, suffering an ankle injury and struggling to pick up momentum since.

The defeat affected Mahut both mentally and physically. "The tournaments after lacked flavor. I was afraid I would not be able to find those moments of excitement again. I was No. 130 at the time of the match, and I had to go back to the small tournaments. I didn't have any more ambitions, and plus, I hurt my back," Mahut said.

A year later, they have barely recovered. Now, by some quirk of fate, they get a chance to do it all over again.

They have met once in between, with Isner taking a straight-sets win at the Hopman Cup earlier this year. Despite the hype around Tuesday's encounter, the sequel is not expected to match the original. But having said that, the saga of Isner-Mahut has been all about defying the odds.

"A three- or four-set match would be ideal, but if it does go to a fifth, who knows? We'll get some laughs and chuckles," Isner said. "And if it gets to 6-6, I don't even want to think about it."

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.