Isner, Mahut and Endless Tennis

Ed Caesar
GQ, 4th May 2011


 

It’s not an image I remember best from the match, but a sound. At seemingly incongruous moments in the fifth set of last year’s first round tie between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, the crowd on Court 18 at the All England Club emitted a nervous, collective giggle.

Wimbledon crowds don’t usually giggle. Of course, they have a famously low threshold for laughter. A rogue pigeon, for example, can reduce Centre Court to weepy guffaws. But this was something higher and finer than laughter. The sound rose from Court 18, amid hushed chatter, like freshly-applied cologne. It was the noise of a crowd watching a tightrope walk, not a tennis match. And it told you one thing: the spectators could not process the evidence placed before their eyes. They did not believe that two professional tennis players could fail to win, or refuse to lose a match for so long.

And yet, somehow, they did. Mahut served the first ball of the match on Tuesday 22 June, at 6.13pm. He served his last at 4.48pm on Thursday 24 June. There were no breaks for rain. The fifth set alone lasted 8 hours 11 minutes, spanned two days, and was 90 minutes longer than the previous longest Grand Slam match ever played: Fabrice Santoro’s victory over Arnaud Clement at the French Open in 2004. Indeed, for extended periods of that final set between Isner and Mahut – when game after game finished decisively in favour of the server – it seemed not only that the match would never end, but that it could never end. It was in these moments that the contest became more interesting than mere sport. It was between these games that the crowd got the giggles.

When Isner eventually passed Mahut with a double-handed backhand to prevail 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68, the assembled punditariat naturally reached for the record books. The match was not only, by some distance, the longest ever played, but broke the records for the longest set, the most games in a set (138), most games in a match (183), most aces in a match by one player (Isner: 113), total aces (216), and most points scored (Mahut: 502). My favourite statistic, though, is that in the fifth set, Mahut successfully served to stay in the match 64 games in a row – an heroic display of mental fortitude.

The trouble with these statistics, however, is that they tell only one story: the match was long. The numbers tell you nothing about why Isner and Mahut were able to play like that – service hold after service hold; ace after ace – or what demons entered their minds and bodies. They can’t tell you that, at the end of the second day’s play, Isner was so bereft of energy that he briefly desired any kind of conclusion – even a loss – because the prospect of returning to play the following day horrified him. And, of course, the statistics tell you nothing about what has happened to the players since the match. They cannot map the strange and intense kinship these men now feel because of their three-day dance in the London sunshine.

There are many reasons why professional tennis matches do not normally last eleven hours. Run-of-the-mill tournament matches are played over three sets, and include tie-breakers when the game score reaches 6-all in any set. Only three Grand Slams (Wimbledon, the French Open and Australian Open) and three international tournaments (the Fed Cup, the Davis Cup and the Olympic Games) play men’s singles and doubles over five sets, with no tiebreaker in the fifth.

Even at the tournaments where a marathon is technically possible, however, fifth sets rarely stray beyond 20 games, because one player loses concentration. By the time someone reaches the latter stages of a fifth set in a Grand Slam, he has normally expended a significant amount of energy. At some point, errors and fatigue decide the match.

But neither Isner or Mahut blinked. To understand why, and how, you have to understand the distance they travelled to that fifth set. As Boris Vallejo, Mahut’s affable coach, explains: “nothing comes from nothing.”

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Nicolas Mahut is six foot three inches tall, with a wiry frame, an impish smile, and the hair of a man falling down an elevator shaft. Born in Angers in January 1982, he began attending specialist tennis boarding schools from the age of 12, and, as a junior, won the French championships at 15, 16, 17, and 18. He also reached the semi-finals of Roland Garros, won the junior doubles titles at the US Open and Australian Open, and won the junior singles title at Wimbledon, beating Mario Ancic in the final – a victory that cemented his love for the tournament.

Big things were expected of Mahut when he turned professional in 2000, but individual sports have a way of kicking talented juniors in the teeth. As an outstanding teenager, he had become accustomed to playing in the latter stages of Grand Slam events. Now, as a fledgling pro, he was playing tiny tournaments in front of nobody – and losing. To compound the loneliness of life on the road, his mother, Brigitte, was ill for the first years of his professional career. She died in 2005.

“My mother’s sickness impacted on my tennis a lot,” he tells me, when we have lunch at the Tennis Club de Paris. “Also, I switched coaches a lot, which didn’t help. You have to be very strong in your mind to progress as a tennis player. You are on your own, and at a certain point, you have to work out what kind of guy you want to be. It took me a long time.”

Certainly, observers have suggested that Mahut lacks the mental toughness to bolster his considerable talent. “In the past that was true,” he says. “At big moments, I’ve lost some matches because mentally I was a little bit weak. I know some other players thought that about me.”

Mahut’s career, though, has not been without success. A grass-court specialist with an old-school serve-and-volley game, he can cause great players real trouble. In 2006, he made the third round of Wimbledon. In 2007, his best year, he beat Rafael Nadal at Queen’s before losing narrowly to Andy Roddick in the final. Then, in 2008, he reached a career-high world ranking of No.40, before his game began to slip. And, in 2009, having spent much of the season injured, he dropped out of the world top 100. Vallejo says that, before Mahut arrived at Wimbledon last year, his injuries during the off-season had been severe enough that he had considered quitting the sport altogether. 

“Financially, it’s tough when you’re injured and your ranking is low,” says Vallejo. “It takes a long time to come back. To quit would have been a big frustration for him, because very few love playing tennis like Nico, but I’m sure it entered his head – if only for a few seconds.”

This glimpse of a life beyond tennis, however, seems to have redoubled Mahut's desire. “When I was injured, the only thing I thought about was Wimbledon,” he says. “I had a huge will to succeed. I had great coaches, and I had a new training partner, Arnaud Clement [the 2001 Australian Open finalist, and a competitor in the previously longest match in history], who was very intense. Voila! I learned a lot. It was like I had been given a fresh start.”

Mahut was ranked 148 in the world when he arrived in SW19 last June, meaning that he needed to win three rounds of qualifying matches to enter the main draw. And, at his final practice session, he made a prediction to his coach. “Nico told me ‘first match of the qualies, I’ll play well,’” says Vallejo. “Second one is going to be difficult, but I’m going to get through. Last match, I’m not going to play well, but I’m going to win. Then, if I qualify, I’m going to play really well.’”

Mahut’s prophesy came true. He beat the mercurial Canadian Frank Dancevic 6-3, 6-0 in the first match. Then, in a prelude to his marathon final set with Isner, he beat the British journeyman Alex Bogdanovic 3-6, 6-3, 24-22. In the last round, he came back from two sets down to beat the veteran Stefan Koubek, 6-7, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.

Having been drawn against Isner in the first round of the main tournament, he and Vallejo talked tactics. Mahut had beaten the American at Queen’s two years previously, but his opponent’s game had developed since then. Vallejo told him to concentrate on his own serve and “stay with John.”  In practice, Mahut hit the ball beautifully. “We didn’t have to change a thing,” remembers Vallejo.

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John Isner is 26 years old and 6 foot 9 inches tall. Raised in a conservative North Carolina family, he has a convivial manner and the carriage of a doleful giraffe. When we meet, shortly after he had lost a first-round match to a lower-ranked player at the Delray Beach tournament in Florida, he is lying on his hotel sofa and dangling a flip-flop on the end of his big toe.

Isner was a late developer. Despite having been a gifted teenage player, he didn’t have a growth spurt until he was 16. In his own words, he was not “strong enough, or good enough” to turn professional when he was 18. Instead, he went to the University of Georgia on a tennis scholarship, where there were “a lot of good parties, and a lot of pretty girls,” and later captained his College team to the national championship watched by 6,000 drunken student fans. “It was pretty awesome,” he recalls.

When Isner turned professional in 2007, he made an immediate impact on tour. In his first six weeks, he climbed 646 ranking places, largely due to a run at the Legg Mason Tennis  Classic event, where, as a wildcard entry, he beat Tim Henman, Tommy Haas and Gael Monfils before losing to Andy Roddick in the final. Then, in his first US Open, he reached the third round, where he lost to Roger Federer – but not before becoming one of only two players in the draw to take a set off the champion.

Isner had a disappointing 2008, but in 2009, he started working with Craig Boynton – an expressive 46-year-old coach who now regards John with avuncular pride. The switch worked. By the end of 2009, Isner was voted the tour’s most improved player. Indeed, when he arrived at Wimbledon in 2010, having won his first major tournament in Auckland, Isner was ranked 18 in the world. But, despite his natural assets for grass – a rocket serve, and a solid return – he was wary about Wimbledon. “There are only, like, three grass tournaments a year,” he says. “It’s definitely my worst surface.”

Before Wimbledon, Boynton decided that special training was in order. Five-set matches on grass can go long, and are often settled by a few key points. Boynton decided to exercise Isner’s “concentration muscle” by having him train continuously for three or four hours at a time in the humidity of a Florida summer. By the time Isner packed his bags for London, Boynton was convinced his charge was in “great shape.” When they stepped off the plane at Heathrow, the temperature was in the low twenties, and there was not a cloud in the sky. Boynton turned to Isner and said “Johnny, look at this weather – you can play ten hours in this.”

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Court 18 at Wimbledon is an unusual set-up. Because of the walkway that flanks the court, and the terrace of the media centre that curves around one end, the playing surface appears to sit in an asymmetric hollow. Despite its eccentricity, the arena is not without atmosphere. The bleachers are sharply banked, meaning the court feels intimate.  And, during popular matches, those who were too late to nab one of the 782 seats can watch from the walkway.

As Isner and Mahut knocked up, at around 6pm on Tuesday 22 June, it’s safe to say that no one was expecting a classic. Still, most seats were filled and the court buzzed with chit-chat. As the players walked onto the grass, they were greeted with a ripple of applause. When the handsome Swedish chair umpire, Mohamed Lahyani, called time, the scene had the feel of cocktail hour on the Cote D’Azur.

The first four sets, however, belied their somnolent setting. Initially, Mahut – wearing a Lacoste shirt and a necklace with a circular metal disc – seemed nervous. Isner – all in Nike, cap backwards – did not. Mahut lost the first set after double-faulting on break point at 4-4. He was “really pissed off,” and, in the next set, broke Isner to love with a series of devastating backhands – the last time for nearly eleven hours of tennis that the American lost his serve.

In the third set, Isner made only five unforced errors; his opponent made two. Mahut won a thrilling tiebreak 9-7 with a down-the-line backhand of such elegance that he jumped for joy the moment he hit it. The fourth set also went to a tiebreaker, in which Mahut quickly went 3-1 up, before losing the remaining points. At 9.07pm, the match was suspended for bad light with the score at two sets all. 

No player likes to sleep on an unfinished tennis match. But, of the two players, Mahut had gone to bed happier. He thought the score reflected the level of play, and that he had a good chance to prevail. Isner, meanwhile, was content enough with his game, but irritated he had been unable to finish off the Frenchman. He had been looking forward to a rest day before his second round tie. Now, he knew he was in a “dogfight.”

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The next afternoon, the weather at Wimbledon was 26ºC, with unbroken sunshine and no humidity – “crisp, light air”, remembers Boynton. In other words, perfect conditions for aces. As they warmed up, both players were implored to concentrate on their serve. Isner needed no reminding. “From the third set tie-breaker onwards, I decided I wasn’t going to lose this match by playing a loose game. I told myself: if I hold my serve, I can’t lose.”

Shortly before 2pm, the players walked out onto court again. Isner’s bag was a little heavier than usual – Boynton had asked the trainer, Rocket Marshall, to pack more energy bars than normal. “This might go awhile,” Boynton told Marshall. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this set went into the mid-teens [in games]. Make sure he has a few bars.”

Boynton's instinct proved correct. Both men came out and served each other dry. The set reached 6-all without a hint of a break. Normally, at 6-all in the final set of a Wimbledon match, the crowd becomes noisily involved in the contest, because they know one player is about to win. But around Court 18 that balmy Wednesday, it was church-quiet – as if the spectators knew they were in for a long haul.

Both players reverted to their mantra: serve big; wait for his mistake. The moment nearly came at 10-9, when Mahut double-faulted twice, and surrendered a match point. “If I win that point, nobody talks about this game ever again,” says Isner.  But he didn’t, and they do. Mahut aced him down the middle for deuce, then held easily. After that match point, Isner did not have another until 33-32, when the Frenchman held his serve from 15-40 down, and sent the crowd wild. Mahut had his first opportunity in the set at 50-50 in games – his first break point since Tuesday evening.

How was that possible? Both players, clearly, were serving well. But their ground strokes were near-perfect, too. They made almost no mistakes. Isner remembers feeling so happy with his game that “it’s hard to explain. I never thought about technique. I had no dark thoughts in my mind. I was just swinging away and the balls were going in – no matter if it was a big point, or whatever. It was crazy.”

Mahut, meanwhile, recalls an almost spiritual dimension to his play. “When we got into the money-time at 6-6 [he says ‘money-time’ in English], there was only John, myself, and my team. No one else. I didn’t hear the crowd. There was only the present time. I didn’t think about the point before, or the point after. I just stayed in the moment. I had absolutely no fear. The level of focus and awareness I had was so high. Normally, you don’t keep up for a long time. But that moment – I kept it for a long time.”

Mahut’s enjoyment, he says, was triggered by more than competition. After the many frustrations in his career, his pleasure came from fulfilling his potential. In this regard, his experience recalls Jean Bobet, the French cyclist of the 1950s, who wrote about experiencing “La Volupte” – the rare and sensual state of perfect riding. “La Volupte,” wrote Bobet, “is delicate, intimate, and ephemeral.  It arrives, it takes hold of you, sweeps you up then leaves you again.  It is for you alone.  It is a combination of speed and ease, force and grace.  It is pure happiness.”

How did it feel, to play tennis like that? “It was the biggest moment of my life,” says Mahut, gravely. “It was magical.”

After the fifth set moved into the thirties in games, the crowd became raucous. Groups of spectators – most, presumably, unaware of either Mahut or Isner before the day’s play – began dividing themselves into “Nico” and “John” supporters. But some observers also started to worry. Isner’s mother, in particular, looked as if she were in physical pain witnessing her son’s fatigue – and would later become an outspoken advocate for fifth-set tiebreakers.

The American, certainly, appeared shattered. He was still able to serve and hit the ball cleanly, but between points he staggered and moped around the baseline, often with a towel hanging out of his mouth. At moments during the latter stages of Wednesday’s play, Isner was heard to shout “what is this guy on?” to Boynton.

Meanwhile, news had trickled around the Championship that something extraordinary was happening on Court 18, and spectators began to jostle for room above the official seating. Morgan Menahem, Mahut’s agent, remembers leaving his seat and not being able to return. He watched the final portion of Wednesday’s play from the hurly-burly of the walkway, in a crowd that included baffled bystanders and “the greats of the game”, including John McEnroe.

In the wider world, too, Isner and Mahut had caught the imagination. On Wednesday evening, I remember listening to two women talking about the match in my local cafe in North-West London. The score was around 39-39. It was clear that neither one of them was much of a tennis fan, but the drama of these two deadlocked players had hypnotised them. They were thrilled and giggly. And there was something wonderful and baffling about the sheer length of the match. On that Wednesday, while those men played tennis for seven hours, England beat Slovenia in the football World Cup, negotiations to avert a tube strike failed, a hurricane formed off the Pacific coast of Mexico, Lou Reed announced he was playing Glastonbury, and an American man detained in Pakistan for attempting to track down and kill Osama Bin Laden was freed.

It was as if time had bent around the match in some way. The players, and their coaches, felt this odd sensation themselves. Both Isner and Mahut talk, in different ways, about being “in the bubble”. Isner calls the sensation “rewind, play... rewind, play.” Boynton elaborates: “it was really like, time was standing still and moving at light speed at the same time. I don’t know if people really understand that. I don’t really know if I understand what was going on.”

On court, philosophy could wait. By the late-thirties in games, Mahut saw his opponent was fading physically. In response, he ran down every lost cause, and skipped out of his chair at the restarts. This dichotomy of body language is what many people remember from the match. It was as if Tigger were playing Eeyore. “I could see he was very tired,” remembers Mahut. “I was tired too, of course, but I didn’t want to show anyone. I wanted him to think that I was unstoppable. I couldn’t find a solution in the game – he was serving too well – so I had to get an advantage somewhere. It was a second fight, a psychological fight.”

Oddly, Isner’s fatigue may have entrenched the rhythm of the match. As he grew more tired, he focused even more heavily on his serve. On returning games where his opponent won two points quickly, he decided to conserve energy. In this way, the match drew on. At 48-47, the scoreboard misfired. At 50-all, it gave up altogether. The crowd, meanwhile, gave the players a standing ovation. Boynton could tell that “from 50-all to 59-all John had nothing in the tank,” but somehow, the American survived two break points at 50-all. On the second, Mahut made him hit a tricky overhead smash. Isner nailed it, won the game, and went back to his seat and his towel thinking “the next few points will decide the game.” He was wrong.

By the latter stages of Wednesday's play, court 18 was in shadow. In the gloaming, Mahut remembers sitting down at the changeover and “feeling the electricity from the crowd.” Every changeover, he put a towel over his head and one over his legs. He refused to look at the photographers who gathered only two feet away. “It was my own moment, a privileged moment,” he remembers. “I needed to stay calm.”

At 58-all, Isner called a bathroom break. Mahut decided to leave the court too. As they walked, Isner spoke to his opponent for the first time in two days of tennis. He apologised for calling the break, because he knew it might affect Mahut’s concentration. At that moment, despite the state of the match, the Frenchman felt a surge of goodwill towards his opponent. It was the beginning of a great friendship.

Isner, however, had been right about Mahut’s concentration. At 59-58, Isner manufactured a break point on the Frenchman’s serve. Mahut responded with an ace, and won the game. He then approached the umpire, to say he couldn’t see the ball. The night before, during the fourth set tiebreaker, Mahut had hit two double-faults in failing light, because he “couldn’t really see.” He did not want to lose the match that way.

Isner, despite blisters that had bled through his shoes, was desperate to continue. “I wanted a conclusion,” he remembers. “I just wanted to go to bed that night knowing I’m either in the second round, or I don’t have to go to the courts tomorrow.” So a loss would have been preferable to continuing the match the next day? “Yeah,” he says, smiling. “I think of myself as a pretty good competitor and I’ve never felt anything like that before.”

After some discussion, the match was suspended at 9.10pm. The spectators unleashed a cacophony of laughter, applause and ironic booing. A few began a chant of “we want more.” By then, the players had competed for a total of ten hours. The score was two sets each, and 59-all. Isner returned to the locker room “out of sorts”.

“He kept saying, over and over, ‘why can’t I beat this guy? What am I doing wrong?’” remembers Boynton. “I said to him, ‘John, are you kidding? You’re doing great! You’re making history!”

While Isner took an ice bath – “the most miserable 12 minutes of my life” – his friend Roddick burst in, and asked if there was anything he could do to help. Boynton suggested that Roddick could organise dinner, which he did. That night, before collapsing into bed, Isner received a vast food delivery at his rented flat in Wimbledon Village – “chicken, pizza, calories” – and sent a few texts to his family. He and his coach both checked their laptops, to find that the match had set the world on fire. “That was the point he realised, ‘this is pretty cool,’” remembers Boynton. “And also – ‘I gotta win this.’”

Mahut, on the other hand, felt sprightly. He went to the gym to warm down for 15 minutes, before returning to his hotel, and eating a small dinner of chicken and pasta with his team at a nearby restaurant. Unable to sleep, he stayed up chatting – “kind of about the match, but also about other things,” remembers Vallejo – before crashing at 1.30am. At 5.30am, Vallejo received a text message. “Nico said ‘I can’t sleep, you want to go for a walk?’ I said, ‘sure.’” That morning, Mahut tried to avoid all news of the match, but, having bought L’Equipe to check on the football World Cup, he found his picture on the front page. “I didn’t read any of it,” he says.

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By Thursday, the story of the longest tennis match in history had become a global news event. For most of the afternoon, camera crews from around the world competed for space on the terrace of the media centre. The moment the main gates opened, meanwhile, spectators with ground tickets had rushed for their chance to secure a seat, and witness history.  Even the big screen on Henman Hill was tuned to Court 18. And, when the players walked out in the bright mid-afternoon sunshine, they received an uproarious ovation. They had taken most of the day to prepare for that moment.

Boynton, in particular, was anxious for Isner to warm up as close to the resumption of play as possible. “I felt that he was vulnerable in his first service game, but that if he pulled through it, and got back into his rhythm, he’d be fine,” he says. Isner himself remembers “hurting that morning,” but soon feeling “remarkably fresh on court.” Mahut also felt good about his prospects. And, once Isner had come through a shaky start on his serve – a double fault followed by a second serve that clipped the line – the match settled into a familiar rhythm. Service hold followed service hold.

At some point in that final session – Isner doesn’t remember when – the American had an epiphany. “I realised that he wasn’t going to just give me the match,” he says. “I was going to have to go and win it.” He began to expend more energy on Mahut’s serve. In fact, his opponent had a good chance to win the match himself. At 30-30, and 68-all in games, Mahut had an opportunity to pass Isner on his second serve. He missed the backhand wide, Isner held, and they changed ends at 69-68.

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Mahut still finds the moment of defeat difficult to discuss, nearly a year on. “In my mind, it was the only tennis match I have ever played where I knew I could not lose,” he says. “So, when I did...”

Certainly, in the immediate aftermath of the game, he suffered what amounted to a breakdown. With the adrenaline pouring out of his body, and lactic acid flooding his muscles, he was forced to endure a special ceremony on court, in which the two players were awarded champagne flutes in honour of their record-breaking match, and pose in front of the scoreboard. He returned to the locker room at the earliest opportunity. His coach had to carry him the last few yards. Once inside, Mahut not only wept inconsolably, but found it hard to stand or breathe. The doctor was called. Meanwhile, Mahut was unable to remember anything about the final game or its aftermath. He kept asking the same question: “did I lose the match, or did he win it?” Vallejo eventually had to carry Mahut into the shower, in his clothes.

Three hours later, he was competing in the men’s doubles with Clement – a tie that was, with an acute lack of sensitivity, scheduled for Court 18. Why did he play? “To have conceded that match as well would have felt like another loss,” he says. While he played the first set of his doubles encounter – a match he would eventually lose the following day in four sets, after another break for bad light – Isner was being interviewed by a succession of television news crews on the terrace above the court. Psychologically, remembers Mahut, it was “very difficult.”

A week after the match, Mahut sent the American an email. He wrote because he could not remember congratulating Isner on his victory. In fact, when the two men embraced at the net – a double-handed hug from Isner, reciprocated with a single arm around the back from Mahut – they spoke warmly. In the email, Mahut told Isner he had shown “incredible fair play” throughout the match, and “real class” by not celebrating too much. He also told Isner that the match had taught him many things. What? “Everything that had been written about my physical and mental boundaries was wrong.”

These lessons, however, were slow to register. In the three months after the match, Mahut experienced a period of injuries and depression. He used to dream about his duel with Isner at night – and sometimes, at the end, he won. Now the dreams and the depression have stopped. He is playing well, and back in the world top 100. His famous match now inspires, rather than haunts him. “I can see now that this is not going into the history books as either a loss or a win, but because we both achieved something unbelievable,” he says. “It made a lot of people feel good, and that makes me proud.”

Moreover, he and Isner remain “really good friends.” They talk and text often. “We will keep that closeness for the rest of our lives,” says Mahut. “I know he felt really sad when he saw me at the end. He knows how difficult it would have been for him to lose that match. What we had for three days, we will never live through that again. There isn’t a day that goes by that someone doesn’t ask me about that match, and I think it’s the same for him.”

The day after beating Mahut, Isner lost in the second round to Thiemo De Bakker in three sets, and 74 minutes. His body, he remembers, was stiffer than steel. In particular, he could hardly move his neck. Now, oddly, Isner finds the marathon match more painful to discuss than Mahut. “Honestly, to see Nico playing well puts a smile on my face because he’s such a good guy,” he says. “I’m trying to get over the match, in my head. I want to be remembered for more than that match. But, yeah, every time I speak to Nico, I’m reminded a little bit about it.” Certainly, he was asked a few questions when the two men met each other again, this January, in the Hopman Cup in Australia – an encounter Isner won in two sets and 90 minutes.

At the time of writing, Isner is No.33 in the world. This slip down the rankings is probably unrelated to what happened last summer. Players experience peaks and troughs of form. But Boynton says his charge has struggled to deal with the aftermath of that crazy match.

“For a while, there was a lot of attention," he says. "Every tournament he played, someone in the crowd called out ’70-68’. They wanted to connect to John, and share what it meant to them. But John was just trying to win the tournament in front of him. He didn’t want to go back in time. I don’t think he has the perspective on the match that the outside world has... When he wins a big tournament, I think he’ll find it a little more palatable. But it’s never going to go away completely.”

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This is the game Mahut cannot remember. At 69-68, he served to stay in the match for a 65th time. Isner missed a forehand wide for 15-0. Mahut then missed a forehand long. At 15-15, Mahut fluffed a drop-shot, before making a difficult volley on the next point. And, at 30-30, Isner fired a forehand winner down the line for his fifth match point. The crowd – at the court, on the hill, in their living rooms – erupted.

At 30-40, Mahut dried the sweat from his face with a tennis ball. A miniscule piece of fluff from the ball attached itself to his nose, and he wiped it away with his hand. He looked up, served deep to Isner’s body, and approached the net. Isner made him play a touch half-volley, which he reached, but failed to bury. A mid-court ball sat up invitingly. Isner swivelled his torso, clasped the racket, and passed Mahut down the line with a punched backhand. Game, set, match.

Isner celebrated appropriately. He collapsed.


 

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