Towering Over Wimbledon


Entering The Championships, John Isner was best known for standing 6′ 9.”

He also gained some props as the man who took the measure of Andy Roddick in a five-setter at last year’s U.S. Open that wound up on Tennis Channel, after CBS contractually went off the air on a Saturday night.

Now, unless Isner lives up to his massive serve and frame and wins a Grand Slam, he’ll be known forever as 70-68. As in defeating Frenchman Nicolas Mahut 70-68 in the fifth set over their first-round match that stretched over three days, in a contest twice interrupted by darkness.

Double-fault that notion: Isner will always be remembered for 70-68.

Spanning 11 hours and 5 minutes, the match shattered the records for length (6 hours and 33 minutes) and the number of games, 183 to 112. The fifth set alone lasted eight hours and 11 minutes and was played out over two days, after ending knotted at 59 games apiece on June 23.

Isner’s 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68 (it’s preposterous to write that) win was highlighted by 112 aces. Mahout managed a mere 103. The old record was 78 held by “Dr.” Ivo Karlovic.

As I was watching Isner-Mahut on ESPN and then ESPNU on Wednesday following the U.S.’s stoppage-time win over Algeria to advance in the World Cup (hey, my son graduated from high school, so I took a personal day), I was struck by the match’s relative lack of drama. For the most part, each man held their serve rather easily, with Isner gaining four match points across the hours. This wasn’t Andy Roddick-Roger Federer and their 16-14 fifth set duel last year that pushed the Swiss past Peter Sampras with a record 15 majors.

Indeed, I can’t see Isner-Mahut supplanting McEnoe-Borg’s 18-16 fourth-set tiebreak in the 1980 final, or Roddick-Federer fifth set, as the tourney’s signature moments. Or as scheduling fill during rain delays, which presumably don’t happen at The Big W any more from a TV perspective because of the retractable roof over Centre Court. Unless, of course, a programmer has an 11-hour, five-minute window to cover. Run Isner-Mahut twice and a full day of programming is accounted for.

Still, you had to marvel as Mahout continually served to stay in the match. And the Frenchman occasionally went flying on the lawn on Court 18. Both competitors showed remarkable resilience, stamina and determination.

At work today, a colleague told me that Isner had finally won 70-68. On Wimbledon Primetime on Tennis Channel Thursday night, I watched as Isner picked a forehand off the baseline and sent it up the line at 30-30. On his fifth match point, this one in Game No. 138 (how crazy does that sound?), Isner smacked a backhand up the line to mercifully end matters for Mahout. Fittingly — because the tennis gods know these guys are fit — Isner won it, Mahout didn’t flame out by spraying the ball around or tossing in a double when it mattered most.

Finding some kind of perspective is difficult. What other event could possibly measure up in terms of duration? This is certainly imperfect, but consider the 6-6 stalemate as bringing teams to the top of the 10th in a baseball game. Divide the remaining 126 games by three - the equivalent of half a frame apiece — and the match would have extended into what, the 51st inning before Isner put it in his pocket. Absurd!

What’s absurd too is that No. 23 Isner now has to muster the strength and his already limited mobility in his second-round match versus Thiemo de Bakker, who won his opener quite quickly, 16-14 in the fifth set. That match is set for noon in the London suburb, or 7 a.m. (ET). ESPN2, no doubt, will keep tabs on these weary warriors. Will Isner have anything left in the tank? And given the historic length of fifth  — it was more than eight hours by itself, after all — should Wimbledon cap the number of games that can be played, before God forbid, a tiebreak is considered to determine the decisive set.

What’s also absurd is how Isner-Mahout has essentially obscured the fact that the women’s French finalist Samantha Stosur and champion Francesca Schiavone have both been eliminated  at the All England Club. Nobody’s really paying much attention to Serena and Venus either,  as the sisters appear to be in form to produce another all-Williams final.

Meanwhile, Isner-Mahout also has masked (somewhat) Federer’s follies in the first two rounds. Fed was down two sets and on the ropes in both the third and fourth sets before taking a tiebreaker to even matters and then bageling No. 60 Alejandro Fallah in the fifth. Forget about looking to tie Peter Sampras’ mark of seven titles on the Wimby lawns - Federer narrowly avoided becoming only the third defending titlist to lose in the opening round the following year. He wasn’t all that much better against Ilija Bozoljac, needing four-sets to dismiss the qualifier, after dropping the second in a tiebreak.

Elsewhere, Scotsman Andy Murray, the U.K.’s best hope to remove the phrase “Fred Perry, the last Brit to Wimbledon back in 1936″ from analyst speak, easily secured passage into the third round in straights over Jarkko Nieminen in front of Queen Elizabeth II on Centre Court. Yes, the crowd saw the queen, but that didn’t save her from the shadow of Isner-Mahut.

Finally, on June 24 not many noticed that Rafa Nadal, who missed defending his 2008 diadem due to knee and family woes last year, lost the first and third sets, before rallying against Robin Hasse, 5-7, 6-2, 3-6, 6-0, 6-3. t.

At this point of the fortnight, the prospects of the match everyone wants to see could blow up, and NBC’’s potential Breakfast at Wimbledon menu with Rafa and Roger is largely an afterthought to the towering presence of Isner-Mahout.

Very well done, gentlemen.