Lying on a massage table in the Wimbledon men's locker room on the evening of June 23, Thiemo de Bakker smiled. The promising young Dutch player knew that his second-round opponent would be the winner of the match then under way between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut. Having closed out his first-round match 16--14 in the fifth set that afternoon, De Bakker had worried about not being as fresh as his next opponent. Ha! Not anymore.
Out on Court 18, a snug box that accommodated only 782 spectators, Isner had just held serve to go ahead 15--14 in the fifth. Savvy fans recalled that at this juncture Roger Federer had finally broken Andy Roddick to win last year's "epic" Wimbledon final. But Mahut held for 15--15, and soon the digits on Court 18's scoreboard grew comically: 20--20. 30--30. 40--40. Other players, hearing the news of the mounting score, gathered on a balcony above the court to watch. Fans stood six deep. Beyond the grounds, a worldwide TV audience flipped back and forth between the World Cup and Wimbledon to follow what one Twitterer deemed the "Most Insane Match Ever!!"
Adding to the insanity was the unlikeness of the principals. Isner, a 25-year-old North Carolinian, is fast friends with Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith, but he has never been known for NFL-style durability—and at 6'9" he has a body almost singularly ill-suited for spending long hours on the court. It had taken him and Mahut almost three hours to split the first four sets on June 22 before play was suspended due to darkness, and by the time the score reached 42--42 in the fifth the next day, they had been battling another five hours. Watching from the sidelines in the gloaming, Isner's mother, Karen, suppressed an urge to order the match stopped. "I know y'all are enjoying this," she told a reporter later, "but I'm worried."
Mahut, a spiky-haired veteran from France, had entered the match seemingly lacking in mental, rather than physical, fitness. "He's a great guy but a fragile guy," says Philippe Bouin, the tennis writer from L'Equipe. As Mahut started out on tour in 2000, his mother was diagnosed with cancer, which would eventually be fatal, and it took her distraught son three years to crack the top 100. His career was filled with narrow losses, often due to insufficient resolve; he even contemplated retirement. But lately he'd found his game and courage, winning three qualifiers to make Wimbledon's main draw, surviving one of them 24--22 in the final set. ("The longest match I'll play," he predicted.) So here he was at 28, an accidental gladiator, serving to stay in his first-round match—one sloppy game and it would be over—and he kept delivering: 45--45. 50--50. 55--55.
At 59--59 the sky lost its grip on daylight, and the match was suspended again. As the players convalesced that night, their differences in support systems contrasted starkly with their equality on the court. Agents, a personal coach and a personal trainer ministered to the 23rd-seeded Isner, who rented a house in Wimbledon Village. His good friend Andy Roddick bought and hand-delivered a carb-heavy dinner of pizza and chicken. Asked how he felt on Thursday morning, Isner served another gem: "Like a million bucks ... in quarters."
Mahut, meanwhile, relied on a trainer on loan from the French federation and a coach he was sharing with two other players. At his budget hotel in London he took a four-minute ice bath at 1 a.m. He was able to get three hours of sleep.
It's a Wimbledon tradition that matches finish on the same court on which they began. So despite the international attention drawn by their marathon (Isner and Mahut were top Google search items), the struggle resumed on Court 18, this time so packed that even John McEnroe ("What, you think I don't want to see this in person?") found a seat only after some effort. As they had on Wednesday, the players returned, but they did not return—not each other's serves, anyway. Both Isner and Mahut have ferocious deliveries, and grass accentuates power. Ace after ace whistled by; each player broke the record for aces in one match, for a total of 216. They were tired but not hopelessly exhausted, and they exchanged holds for another hour and five minutes.
Finally Mahut lapsed on his service, Isner hit two brilliant shots, and it was over. "Game, set, match," said chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani before inhaling and declaring, "6--4, 3--6, 6--7, 7--6, 70--68."
The match had spanned 11 hours and five minutes and comprised 183 games, more than players sometimes require to win a seven-round tournament. Since it had begun, about 100 other Wimbledon matches had been completed, six teams had been eliminated from the World Cup, and Australia had changed prime ministers.
At match point Isner fell on his back, as much from fatigue as from elation, but he rose quickly to wrap a consoling arm around Mahut. The tournament held an impromptu ceremony on the court to honor the two gallant rivals. Not that Mahut recalls it. He claims that for three hours after the match he was almost incapacitated by the emotional trauma of it. He was scheduled to play doubles later that afternoon. His partner, Arnaud Clément, tried to talk him out of it, fearing for Mahut's well-being, but Mahut insisted. "If we don't play," he said, his eyes rimmed in red, "I'll lose twice today, and I can't have that." (Alas, he and Clément lost anyway, but not until Saturday, as that match was suspended twice, once due to darkness.)