Wednesday June 23rd, 2010

The Wimbledon match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut is so improbable, so thoroughly preposterous, one searches for comparisons. Suffice it to say that the fifth set of last year's classic Wimbledon final -- Roger Federer over Andy Roddick, 16-14 -- looks rather paltry just now.

Try 59-59 in the fifth -- and that's right, it's still not over.

Isner and Mahut strolled onto Court 18 this afternoon at the All England Club to resume a first-round match that had been suspended by darkness Tuesday evening, tied at two sets apiece. They spent seven hours and six minutes trying to finish -- and failed. Around 9:10 p.m., pretty much the cutoff point for any Wimbledon match, it was suspended once again -- tied at two sets apiece.

In case your eyes glazed over the first time, you read it correctly: 59-59. That doesn't even register in tennis; it sounds like halftime of an NBA game.

Thursday afternoon in London, sometime after 10:30 a.m. Eastern Time, the longest match in the history of professional tennis will end. Probably. You can't really be sure with these two guys. There have been only two service breaks in the entire match -- just short of 10 hours' worth -- and none at all through those 118 games of the fifth.

To say the least, a whole bunch of records were broken. Shattered, actually. Wiped out as if they never existed. Perhaps you recall the previous record for the longest professional match ever played: 6 hours and 33 minutes for Fabrice Santoro's victory over Arnaud Clement at the 2004 French Open. Well, Isner and Mahut wiped that out in the fifth set alone, and the length of this ongoing match now stands at an incomprehensible 10 hours.

Before Wednesday, Wimbledon's marathon standard was the 1969 epic between Pancho Gonzalez and Charlie Pasarell. They co-held the record for most games in a set (46, by virtue of Pasarell's 24-22 edge in the first) and most games overall (112). That's all gone, although Gonzalez' victory will always be remembered among the most enthralling matches anywhere.

Isner and Mahut are relative strangers on the Grand Slam stage. With his No. 19 world ranking, Isner is a fast-rising American with a ton of potential. Mahut, a French qualifier ranked No. 148 in the world, is such a relative unknown, some fairly wise observers would struggle to identify his first name. He's the kind of guy where you look up his biography in the ATP press guide, and the most valuable information is something along the lines of "enterprising bass fisherman." To his credit, Mahut did win the 2000 Wimbledon junior title, but in the midst of a thriving era for French tennis players (as opposed to French soccer players), Mahut ranks well behind such top-50 talents as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils, Gilles Simon and Richard Gasquet.

By the time they finish this thing, his name will live forever.

The towering (6-foot-9) Isner, who never looks to be in much of a hurry, spent the latter stages looking spent and disgusted. He was calling up the strengths of his game -- a massive serve and punishing forehand -- on sheer will power, finding himself unable to capitulate after such an exhausting physical test. Mahut, on the other hand, often appeared as fresh as a spring colt, bouncing around lightly on the balls of his feet as he prepared for the 111th game of the match.

How is such a thing even possible? Well, for one thing, it's Wimbledon. Unlike the U.S. Open, where tiebreakers decide a fifth-set battle, Wimbledon adheres to tradition and plays on. Wimbledon is also the place where powerful serving is most rewarded. That was the beauty of Roddick's performance last year, fending off Federer's surge by holding serve, time and time again. Isner is one of the biggest-serving guys on tour, and Mahut proved he's no slouch, either. As the match totals stand right now, Isner owns 98 aces (20 more than the previous record), Mahut 95, including a blistering bullet down the middle with a match point against him at 59-58.

It will be a strange scene Thursday when this match enters its third day. For all we know, they could be on court for about five minutes. But it may be weeks before they fully grasp the significance, surely the most remarkable first-rounder in the history of Grand Slams. For the moment, I'd imagine, their bodies cry out for the Bahamas.

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