Isner, who is currently ranked 19th in the world, was pre-seeded 23rd at Wimbledon. For Isner's 1st match, he drew the unseeded Mahut, who is currently ranked 148th in the world, and had to progress through a qualifying pre-tournament in order to be eligible to play (since he didn't qualify automatically). Mahut was seeded 27th in the qualifying rounds. He survived three qualification rounds, beating Frank Dancevic easily in the 1st round (6–3, 6–0), Alex Bogdanovic in a 2nd round marathon (3–6, 6–3, 24–22), and Stefan Koubek in the final round in five sets (6–7, 3–6, 6–3, 6–4, 6–4), in which he came back from a 2 sets to none deficit. Thus, Mahut had already played an unusually large amount of tennis in the week before the main tournament even began.
The Isner-Mahut match was scheduled to begin on Court 18 (a non-showcase court), on Day 2 (Tuesday) of the tournament. Three earlier matches were scheduled on Court 18 for that same day, so the Isner-Mahut match didn't begin until 6:13pm local time.
Isner converted the only break of service in the 1st set, winning 6 games to 4. Mahut bounced back, converting the only break of service in the 2nd set, winning 6 games to 3. The two held serve throughout the 3rd set, but Mahut prevailed in a tiebreaker, winning 7 games to 6 (9-7 in the tiebreaker). The 4th set lasted over an hour, with both players holding serve and forcing another tiebreaker. Isner prevailed this time, winning 7 games to 6 (7-3 in the tiebreaker). After Isner leveled the match, at 9:07pm local time, the match was suspended due to darkness. Little did everyone know what was about to happen the next day.
I was in the middle of quarterly meetings at my office last week, so I wasn't really paying attention to the early matches at Wimbledon. In fact, I didn't even know that these two were playing in the 1st round, so the coming news came as quite a shock to me.
The match resumed on Court 18 at 2:05 pm local time on Day 3 (Wednesday). I got word at lunch time (~5:30pm local time) that this match was tied at 30-30 in the 5th set! Both players just kept bombing away, racking up aces, and continuing to hold serve. Every half hour or so, I was checking the score. 39-39. 45-45. 50-50. 55-55. Finally, not long before I headed home from work, the chair umpire decided to suspend the match for a 2nd day, due to darkness, with the score tied at 59-59. Neither player could break serve!
[For those of you unfamiliar with tournament scoring rules in tennis, typically, if a set is tied at 6 games apiece, the winner of that set will be determined by a tiebreaker. The two players alternate serving every two points, and they play until someone scores 7 points. The winner must also win the tiebreaker by at least 2 points. During all rounds at Wimbledon (and a the finals of the other 3 major tournaments), a tiebreaker isn't used to determine the winner of the final set. Instead, the two players continue playing until they have achieved a two game advantage, no matter how many games it takes. ]
On Day 4 (Thursday), the match resumed at 3:43pm local time. At this point, the match had already lasted exactly 10 hours, and it was anyone's guess as to how much longer the match would continue. With renewed energy, both players continued to bomb away, serve after serve, game after game. Finally, with Mahut serving, down 30-40 and trailing 69 games to 68, Isner ripped a backhand winner past Mahut to put an end to the match. After 11 hours and 5 minutes of play spanning 3 days, Isner was finally victorious, 6–4, 3–6, 6–7, 7–6, 70–68. The match broke a number of tennis records:
- Longest match (11 hours, 5 minutes)
- Longest set (5th set - 8 hours, 11 minutes)
- Most games in a set (5th set - 138)
- Most games in a match (183)
- Most aces in a match by one player (Isner - 113)
- Total aces in a match (216 - Mahut's 103 aces were the 2nd highest number by a player in a match)
- Consecutive service games held (168 - 84 for each player)
I hated to see either of these players lose, especially after battling for so long. I can't even begin to imagine the mental/physical toll this match took on both Isner and Mahut. Sadly for Isner, the next day he had to play an early morning 2nd round match against unseeded Thiemo De Bakker. Isner was downed in just 1 hour and 14 minutes, losing 6-0, 6-3, 6-2. Amazingly, Isner failed to produce a single ace in the match, and he received neck and back treatment while clearly battling fatigue. In fact, Patrick McEnroe even tweeted that Isner had "no skin left on his toes."
I will be shocked if we ever see a tennis match this long ever again. Even Isner agrees, saying in a courtside interview, "Nothing like this will happen again, ever." It is likely that Wimbledon could change their 5th set tiebreaker rule next year, which would prevent another marathon match like this from taking place. In the meantime, tennis must enjoy this moment in the sun, because no one expected John Isner and Nicolas Mahut to steal a few moments of fame from the World Cup.