Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Distance

59-59.  That's where the score presently stands in the fifth set of the first-round Wimbledon match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut.

For reference, the previous longest tennis match, by number of games played, lasted a mere 112 games.  That was Pancho Gonzales's first-round Wimbledon victory over Charlie Pasarell in 1969, in an era before tiebreaks were introduced to limit the first four sets of a five-set match.  In fact, that match played a large part in the adoption of the tiebreak into Wimbledon.  But that longstanding rule is of no benefit to Isner and Mahut now.  This being a decisive fifth set at Wimbledon, there is no tiebreak, no clock, no mercy rule to determine the winner.  It goes on either until one man pulls ahead by two games, or until someone opts to retire.

After two days of play, neither player has backed down yet, and today they played more games, in the fifth set alone, than Gonzales and Pasarell did in their entire legendary match.  The length of this match has already so far eclipsed the previous mark that those stats need not ever again be brought into the same conversation.  This record shall hereafter reside in its own category.  To provide another perspective, these men have been playing for ten hours.  After over seven hours today--longer than the entirety of the next longest match--play had to be suspended due to darkness, to be picked up again tomorrow.

I didn't get to watch any of today's action, but I will be taking tomorrow off to witness day three, even if it should last only two more games.  When I received my brother's text message at work, informing me that the score was tied at 59 all, I thought for sure he was either joking or had mistyped.  I've watched some sports, seen some records broken, but never have I heard of anything so improbable in my lifetime.  Whatever the outcome, this match will obviously be the highlight of the tournament, definitely the greatest moment in both players' careers, if not their lives.  But even more than that, I say, all sincerity, that this is bigger than the sum of all the other tennis matches recorded since I've been alive, bigger than 10 Olympics, plus as many World Cups, 40 Super Bowls, and 3 Gulf Wars.  This is tennis's own equivalent to Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game.  Like the moonwalk even, this is an event for which time stands still, and it feels wrong that anyone in the world should be otherwise occupied.  In the face of such a singular feat, I realize what hyperbole it has been to toss around words like "marathon" and "immortality" when covering other matches.  Isner and Mahut are not even contenders, and their play is probably not the most scintillating tennis, but this is something that has never happened before, will probably never happen again in your lifetime, your children's lifetimes, or their children's lifetimes.  Truly, it is for moments like this that sport exists.

1 comment:

Czardoz said...

You thought, "59 all? That's not possible. He must have meant '9 all.' But why would that be a big deal? Why???"