LONDON (Reuters) - The embrace John Isner and Nicolas Mahut shared at the net said it all — no words were needed to describe the longest ever tennis match after the American won 70-68 in the fifth set at Wimbledon on Thursday.
A backhand passing shot from Isner at 1648 local time finally broke the three-day deadlock after a staggering 11 hours and five minutes on Court 18.
While Isner’s weary legs buckled under him as he collapsed on to his back in disbelief, the fans occupying every inch of space in and around the court rose to their feet to give the heroes a prolonged standing ovation.
Every man, woman and child who had bagged one of the prized 782 seats on Court 18, or those who were craning their necks to see the action from a heaving Henman Hill knew they had been privileged to see something that happens only once in a lifetime.
“I am a little bit tired,” an elated Isner, who could barely put one foot in front of the other when fading light stopped play at 59-all on Wednesday, said in an on-court interview.
“When you play a match like this with an atmosphere like this you don’t feel tired. This crowd was fantastic. It stinks someone had to lose.”
Isner completed an eye-watering 6-4 3-6 6-7 7-6 70-68 win — and that was just to reach the second round.
No words could have consoled an utterly dejected Mahut, who had looked the fresher of the pair throughout the final set which alone lasted eight hours 11 minutes, as he slumped back into his courtside chair and covered his head with the green and purple Wimbledon towel.
The crowd tried to lift the Frenchman’s spirits by rewarding him with the loudest cheers of the day and even a sweat-drenched Isner joined in the ovation.
“The guy is an absolute warrior. I want to share this day with him, it was an absolute honor,” said Isner. “I wish him the best and see him somewhere down the road and it won’t go 70-68.”
It is a match that featured sinew stretching rallies, slam dunk smashes and countless angled winners but none of those will stand out as much as the 215 booming aces fired down by the duo — with the 2.06 meter tall Isner shooting down 112 of them.
“We played the greatest match ever at the greatest place to play tennis. Wimbledon is the greatest tournament and we just played the greatest game ever,” Mahut told the cheering crowd.
The combat reached such epic proportions, that the battling gladiators were breaking records with almost every shot they made during the course of the fifth set, which alone shattered the previous record of a complete match at six hours 33 minutes.
At one point it even looked like courtside scoreboard would run out of space if the match went on for much longer as neither Isner or Mahut got a sniff of a break point for the first 64 minutes on Thursday.
But within a blink of an eye it was all over.
Mahut hurled his wristbands into crowd the while one lucky fan leapt high into the air to catch Isner’s baseball cap.
The sport’s statisticians face an almighty rewrite of the record books after landmark upon landmark was shattered over three incredible days in a small corner of southwest London.
To pick just a few, Isner and Mahut shattered the records for the longest match, longest set, most games in a set at 138, most games in a match at 183 and most aces.
A high-five with a cheering John McEnroe, who sat through the entire 20 games contested on Thursday, completed an unforgettable day for Isner.
After being part of such a monumental duel, Isner and Mahut could not escape the arena without grabbing a picture for the family album.
Along with Swedish umpire Mohamed Lahyani, the trio stood proudly in front of the green scoreboard with their astonishing powers of endurance outlined in the glowing numbers 6-4 3-6 6-7 7-6 70-68.
Editing by Miles Evans