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Finally: Isner beats Mahut, 70-68, in 5th set

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

WIMBLEDON, England -- When The Match That Would Not End finally did, at 70-68 in the fifth set, after a record 11 hours, 5 minutes spread over three days, the customary handshake between opponents simply would not suffice.

So when John Isner of the United States won the longest match in tennis history and went to the net to greet Nicolas Mahut of France, who -- for lack of a better word -- lost Thursday at Wimbledon, Isner pulled Mahut in for a hug.

"You know," Isner told the crowd moments later, "it stinks someone had to lose."

Quite true.

There were 980 points overall, and Mahut won more, 502-478. There were 711 points in the fifth set, and Mahut won more, 365-346.

But Isner (IHZ-ner) won the most important point of all: the last one, which happened to be a rather nondescript backhand winner down the line. It allowed Isner to break Mahut's serve for only the second time all match. That also was the only service break of the seemingly interminable fifth set, ending a run of 168 consecutive holds that began in the second set, all the way back on Tuesday.

Essentially, the match lasted as long as it did for two reasons: Neither man could break the other's serve, and Wimbledon does not employ a tiebreaker in the fifth set.

"Especially once the match got past, you know, 25-all, I wasn't really thinking," said Isner, who led the University of Georgia to the 2007 NCAA team tennis championship. "Hitting a serve and trying to hit a forehand winner is the only thing I was doing."

When it did conclude, Isner dropped down to the court, rolled on his back, and kicked his legs in the air. After the players briefly spoke, Mahut sat in his changeover chair, stared blankly ahead, then draped a purple-and-yellow Wimbledon towel over his head.

"It's really painful," Mahut said.

The 23rd seeded Isner's 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68 victory -- yes, that's 70-68, not 7-6; sure reads like a typo, huh? -- was merely a first-round match between two relatively unheralded players. Yet it will be remembered far more distinctly, and discussed far more frequently, than many a Grand Slam final, not because of the stakes, certainly, or the quality of play, necessarily, but because of all the math involved.

"The numbers," Mahut said, "speak for themselves."

To wit: The 183 games and total time, both far beyond the existing records of 112 and 6:33. The 138 games and 8:11 in the fifth set alone, also records. Isner's 112 aces in the match, and Mahut's 103, both much higher than the old mark of 78. The combined 490 winners (Isner had more, 246-244) and only 91 unforced errors (Isner had more, 52-39).

"We played the greatest match ever, in the greatest place to play tennis," said Mahut, who is ranked 148th and went through qualifying. "I thought he would make a mistake. I waited for that moment, and it never came."

Instead, Mahut faltered -- 46 hours, 39 minutes after the first point was played -- and later acknowledged his abdominal muscles were aching Thursday. Both men showed remarkable resilience, even if they moved increasingly slowly.

They began at 6:09 p.m. Tuesday, but action was suspended after the fourth set because of darkness. And following 7 hours, 6 minutes of play Wednesday, the match was suspended again at 59-59 in the final set.

At some juncture as daylight was turning to dusk Wednesday, Isner said, "I was completely delirious. ... Even though it was dark, and no one could see, I wanted a final verdict, win or lose. I didn't want to have to sleep on it. But it wasn't to be."

Indeed, they had to come back Thursday afternoon, when another 20 games -- the equivalent of at least two sets -- and another 1 hour, 5 minutes, were required to wrap things up at 4:48 p.m.

"I'm tired watching this," kidded three-time Wimbledon champion John McEnroe, who took it in from a third-row seat. "It's Herculean what they're doing. ... I had to come pay my respects."

While Mahut remained mostly straightfaced and silent Thursday, Isner was constantly muttering to himself after missing shots. His coach, Craig Boynton, kept imploring Isner, yelling, "That's the right stuff, kid!" or "You'll get your look, kid!"

Eventually, Isner did. Coming out of a changeover ahead 69-68, he got to 15-all when Mahut pushed a forehand long. On the next point, Mahut hit a poor drop shot that hit the net, then yanked at his hair and grimaced, the score now 15-30. His volley winner made it 30-all, but Mahut would not win another point.

Isner smacked a forehand passing winner down the line to earn his fifth match point of the fifth set -- he had wasted four such chances Wednesday -- and shook his fists, while Mahut rolled his eyes. And then, in a blink, it was over, thanks to Isner's last backhand.

"It was the will to win. Not that I outwilled him; I mean, obviously, he gave it his all," Isner said. "I just kind of was a little bit more fortunate than he was."

As he basked in the crowd's standing ovation, Isner made sure to point in Mahut's direction and applaud, too.

There were moments the night before when Isner wasn't sure he'd be standing at the end.

Mom wasn't so sure, either.

"At the end of yesterday, I was worried," Isner's mother, Karen, who sat in the stands, said Thursday. "He was kind of stumbling around, and I was kind of worried. My friends had to sort of hold me back, because I was kind of inclined to go on the court and go, 'OK. That's it. We're done here."'

Understandably, both men were wiped out Wednesday night. Isner "was incoherent" for 20 minutes, according to Boynton.

Isner and Mahut tried to recover as best they could, with ice baths and massages, by drinking and eating plenty. Andy Roddick, the 2003 U.S. Open champion who played earlier Wednesday, went out and got an assortment of takeout food for Isner and his coach, including pizzas, chicken and mashed potatoes.

The 25-year-old Isner, of Tampa, Fla., was heretofore best known -- if known at all -- for upsetting fellow American Roddick in the U.S. Open's third round last year, and never before had won a match at the All England Club. The 28-year-old Mahut's biggest accomplishment probably was his Wimbledon junior title in 2000; as a pro, he's only once been to the third round at any Grand Slam tournament.

So it was understandable that neither managed more than about three or four hours of sleep Wednesday night, anxious about getting back out there. After all, cozy Court 18 might have only 782 seats, but it had become their big stage.

"Not often do I steal the show from a guy like Federer, but I think I did," Isner said.

Roger Federer, who owns a record 16 Grand Slam titles, including six at the All England Club, was among the fellow pros gushing about the enormity of this match.

"I knew it was probably a big deal around the tennis world, because this is Wimbledon, so anybody that follows tennis, all eyes are on this tournament," Isner said. "It was when I got back to the locker room that I realized, you know, how big of a story it was, really, worldwide."

And there's no rest for the weary now. Isner is due at Court 5 on Friday at noon (7 a.m. EDT) to face 49th-ranked Thiemo de Bakker of the Netherlands, whose own first-round victory normally would be considered something extraordinary, because it went to 16-14 in the fifth set.

Ha! 16-14! How mundane.

Whatever else Isner or Mahut may accomplish in tennis, however many matches or titles each may win, they forever will be associated with these three days at the All England Club and one particular score: 70-68.

Isner recognizes that.

He also is intent on adding to his resume.

"This one's obviously going to stick with me probably the rest of my life, really. But I hope it doesn't define my career. I think I have what it takes, you know, to do some really big things in this game," Isner said. "The four biggest tournaments of the year are the Grand Slams. I have probably a good seven, eight years left to try to make a good run at 'em. So hopefully this won't be the thing that I'm most remembered about."