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THE SPORTS PHILOSOPHER: “Tennis Anyone?”

June 28, 2010
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      They played a little game of tennis out on Court Eighteen at Wimbledon on Tuesday.

      And Wednesday.

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      And Thursday.

      They played into darkness twice and left the court to frenzied (albeit disappointed) crowds twice, because after two days there was still no winner to worship.   This was only a 1st-round match.   Only an insignificant little blip on the Wimbledon radar screen, on the way to crowning either Federer or Nadal champion.   Just a couple of unknown guys you have never heard of, the American gentle giant John Isner and the skinny feisty Frenchman Nicolas Mahut (pronounced, fittingly, Muh-WHO), neither man a threat to either reach the quarters or to—ordinarily—cause you to keep reading this column.image0018

      But years from now theirs is the match we will all remember.   Because last week at Wimbledon, Isner and Mahut played the longest tennis match in history.   Literally the longest tennis match in the history of the World.   And, perhaps more significantly, the longest match that will ever be played.   And I mean ever.

      The final score was 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68.   Doesn’t matter who won; I’ll tell you in a minute.   This three-day marathon of a match lasted, in cumulative playing time, eleven hours and five minutes.   The previous record for longest match ever was six hours and thirty-three minutes, at the 2004 French Open.   So this one beat that one by over four and a half hours.   I know; hard to comprehend, huh.   And the 138 games in the 5th set are 26 more games played than the previous record for an entire Wimbledon match.   Also hard to comprehend.

      And that 5th-set score is not a misprint.   They don’t play a tie-breaker in the 5th set at Wimbledon, you have to win it the old-fashioned way, by two games, to get through to the next round.   So for parts of three days Isner and Mahut kept holding serve.   Ace after ace.   Winner after winner.   Hold after hold.   No tennis player had ever served a hundred aces in a match before.   These guys both did.

      Mahut had it the hardest.   Isner, by chance, served first in the 5th set, so that every time he held serve Mahut had to hold.   He had all the pressure.   He enjoyed no margin for error.   And playing against a guy like Isner can’t be easy.   The gentle Georgian is six foot nine inches tall, 250 pounds, with the wingspan of a condor.   His booming serve (occasionally clocked at over 140 miles an hour) is not unlike an otherworldly thunderbolt, projectiles hurtling down from his racquet as if propelled by the mighty hammer of Thor.   Playing tennis against Isner must literally feel like waging war against a giant.

      The pressure finally got to Mahut.   In the 5th set he had held his serve an astounding 64 consecutive times with the match on the line.   But he couldn’t hold it a 65th.   Isner ripped an incredibly difficult short-hop forehand winner from the baseline at 15-30, and then on match point he fired a perfect backhand passing shot down the line to close the deal.   He sank to the grass in exhaustion.   They embraced at the net.   Cheers rained down.   And then, incredibly, they held a post-match ceremony right there in the middle of the court to commemorate the occasion, complete with interviews, speeches, plaques, and beautifully wrapped gifts.   Former British #1 Tim Henman was there, dressed in a nifty gray suit, just to have someone important on hand to present the gifts.   It was surreal.

      And then Mahut went back to the locker room and broke down and sobbed.

      I’ve been ruminating for three days, trying to think of clever things I can do to put this in perspective for you folks.   I’ll do the best I can.   The Isner/Mahut match eclipsed the previous longest match ever by a margin of approximately 70%.   In other words it was 70% longer than the previous longest match.   Okay?   The longest NFL playoff game ever was six quarters long.   So imagine if next year’s Super Bowl goes into overtime, and it takes over 10 quarters of football to produce a winner.   That’s what it would be like.   It would be like if Albert Pujols broke Barry Bonds’ single-season home run record by hitting 124 round-rippers this year.   It would be like if Kobe Bryant broke Wilt Chamberlain’s record of 100 points scored in a game by calmly tossing in 170 points.   It would be like if Phil Mickelson broke Tiger Woods’ record (at least I hope it’s the record) of an alleged, recently-reported 121 mistresses serviced during his marriage by cheating on the heroic, cancer-battling Amy Mickelson with 206 different gold-digging women.    You get the idea. 

      And then there’s the exhaustion.   As far as my own personal experience is concerned, the closest thing I can equate to what Isner and Mahut went through is my attic.   I recently sold my house, and the other day I was up in the attic for a couple agonizing hours clearing out boxes.  It was about 115 degrees up there, and I had to squat and crouch and bend over and lift those stupid boxes and lower them down through the trap door to my irritated son standing on the ladder below.   It was backbreaking, heat-stroke-threatening work, and even as I type this sentence my back, knees, neck, and left shoulder are killing me.   And that was just a couple hours of torture.   Those two kids had it harder than that.

      But back to the issue of breaking records, about the only sports records of note I could come up with where a guy broke a previous record by anything close to such an astounding margin were these two: Rickey Henderson broke Lou Brock’s record of 938 stolen bases by almost 500, by swiping an incredible 1406 bags in his career.   And the flame-throwing Nolan Ryan bettered Sandy Koufax’s record of four no-hitters in a career by throwing a mindboggling seven no-hit games.   Seven no-hitters is approximately 70% more no-hitters than four, if you follow me.   Unbelievable.

      And in a tasty coincidence, it was Henderson who Ryan struck out for his 5,000th career strike-out victim.  (I don’t think that actually means anything, other than the Sports Philosopher spends an awful lot of time thinking about esoteric Sports minutiae.   Just think about it for a couple minutes, though….try it….let it resonate….it’s fun…okay, that’s enough.)

      Anyway, that’s my humble attempt to make heads and tails of the most titanic tennis match ever played.   And I salute the two warriors here and now.    John Isner for his courage and class in victory, Nicolas Mahut for his guts and grace in defeat.   Well done, fellas.

B.E.

      Final note: The next day Isner had to play his 2nd-round match.   The tank was empty.   He was routed in straight sets, the man who held serve 84 consecutive times suffering four breaks of serve in a row to start the match.   He lost 18 of the 23 games they played.   He could barely move.   And the irony is that he went from winning the longest match of all time (11 hours and 5 minutes) to losing the shortest men’s match yet played at this year’s edition of Wimbledon—just over an hour.   But he didn’t quit.   He took his beating like a man.

      I ask you….doesn’t this make him even more heroic?

meet….The Sports Philosopher!image00211

Brad Eastland is an author, historian, film buff, undiscovered fictioneer, and tennis encyclopedia— in no particular order.   Brad’s other recent columns for LaVerneOnline can be found in Sports under ‘The Sports Philosopher’ and also in Viewpoint under ‘Brad Eastland’s View’.    Brad has also written 4 novels and over 20 short-stories.    Samples of his best fiction work can be discovered within the fascinating links below:
 
http://www.bosonbooks.com/boson/fiction/gamble/gamble.html
http://www.bosonbooks.com/boson/fiction/basket/basket.html
http://www.bosonbooks.com/boson/freebies/freebies.html

 

 

 

 

 

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