118 and counting [Isner, Mahut & the impossible]


Way to go Buddy!

The day before yesterday I was complaining to my g/friend about the World Cup: “I wish surprises would happen just a little bit more often in soccer.” Obviously I was not in a particularly philosophical mood or I might have noticed that the very notion of surprise implies a certain rarity, something that cannot be anticipated precisely because it happens so infrequently. In these moments of surprise the laws of probability are either bent or broken and one can glance just a bit further then everyday life and the common run of things: the future, another world, utopia.

However, in sports, the surprises are usually a matter of an underdog somehow managing to upset a favorite, a black-horse winning it all, the sweetness of which lies in the disruption of the existing power structure. It turns out not to be a structure at all, just a temporary order that can change according to vicissitude and the day’s form.

And my wish for a surprise at the FIFA World Cup 2010 in SA might just as well have been a projection of another wish, which can be stated much more bluntly: it would be nice to have an African World Champion for a change. The Europeans have pretty much everything else, so let Nigeria or The Ivory Coast or Ghana hoist the trophy just this one time.

Instead the surprise took place in a completely different venue and even on the periphery of that: Wimbledon 2010, second Round, John Isner (USA) vs Nicolas Mahut (FRA), a qualifier. Qualifier means Mahut had to play a couple of matches just to get into the tournament. Their match had been suspended the day before as they were playing the fourth set. Today they resumed play and after Isner taking the fourth in the tie-break, began playing the epic, impossible fifth set. I was just about to head outside for a quick run but, accursed/beloved Internet, quickly checked ESPN to see what Nadal had been up to. The headline immediately caught my ATTN: “Infinity and Beyond” and the hunched over hulk of Isner. It reminded me of a piece on Tennis Dave Wallace might have written. It said 47-47 and I was just trying to figure out what the numbers could mean… when my brain finally processed I scrambled to find a streaming site and did. Two commentators were cooly commenting in an utterly incomprehensible & vexing language. Not vexing because of the phonology or because I was not privy to whatever analytical enlightenment was being passed on but because it was one of those languages you cannot even guess at which one it is; my gut linguistic instinct would put (a really tiny amount of) money on either Estonian or Finnish. And I scanned the fizzy stream for the numbers which clearly said fourty-something. Isner was already in energy-saving mode, taking as few steps between points as humanly possible and making a generally really pissed off impression. Mahut on the other hand was looking fresh, positively 1st setish, which was in itself unbelievable. The twitter bar on the right-hand side was blasting down with comments [self-consciously post-modern shit about how lucky we are to be witnesses of this historic event, flashing forward to the future and commenting on the present from there with us stream-watchers as the “select few” who would be able to say “Yeah, I saw that match live, it was something else”], while the scoreboard was not turned-off [as I imagined when they showed a close-up of it and the commentators chuckled klingonically] but rather went haywire once the score topped 49-49.

Back & forth they went, Isner versus Mahut, Mahut versus Isner, serving like ServingCybots Cyberdine5000, at times still producing stunning rallies with Mahut racing all over the court, lounging after long, hard, flat shots he had none of returning. Not even John and Nicolas any longer, actually but the Tennis embodiments of Yin and Yang.

People were cheering them on randomly between games and changeovers, just welcoming the otherworldly effort. I was trying to figure out why they weren’t cramping up like crazy but still haven’t figured it out. After nine hours of continuous, high-level Tennis playing it only seems logical that the Magnesium and whatnot reserves should be famished and cramps ensue. But they kept right at it, impeccable serves whistling through the South London gloom.

Into the 50s and beyond, all tennis records lying shattered far behind them. They seemed, unconsciously, to want to prove Kantor right: that certain infinities (e.g. the match) are larger than other infinities (e.g. the fifth match). And now, with the battle not even completed, I wish David Foster Wallace would still be around to witness this, as much for his own enjoyment as for the infinitesque writing that might flourish from it.

You could see John McEnroe had gotten to the match late, he was somewhere up in the boondocks bleacher places, as incredulous as everybody else. At times it looked like one of them might break the other’s service game but that never happened; seemed like the unfathomable had a will of its own, a powerful one that wanted to live to see another day. As indeed it did; eventually the proceedings got to dark, in the late 50s and they had to call it @ a score for the ages: 59-59. Even Federer & Co. Were going bonkers over this game.

BBC captured it nicely.

The match was locked at 59-59 in the final set after 10 hours of play when it was suspended because of bad light. The six-hour final set is already longer than any match ever played.

Isner (98) and Mahut (95) have also both smashed the previous record for the most aces, the 78 set by Ivo Karlovic in a Davis Cup tie in 2009. The previous longest match was at the French Open in 2004, when Fabrice Santoro beat Arnaud Clement after six hours and 35 minutes.

The 6ft 9in American had two match points himself at 33-32 and another at 59-58, all of which Mahut managed to fend off.

Towards the end, the umpire’s voice was going, rallies were collectors’ items and the scoreboard was broken because it couldn’t cope with the alien numbers.

While Isner was almost delirious, Mahut, 28, looked remarkably fresh, perhaps boosted by the knowledge he had won a match with Britain’s Alex Bogdanovic in qualifying 24-22 in the final set. Before they headed off for a well-earned rest, the players were grabbed by the BBC’s Phil Jones for a final word on an astonishing day.

Mahut said: “We’re fighting like we have never done before. We’ll come back tomorrow and see who is going to win this match. Everyone wants to see the end.”

Isner added: “He’s serving fantastic, I’m serving fantsatic. Nothing like this will ever happen again. Ever.”

Roger Federer added: “I love this! I don’t know if I was crying or laughing. It was too much.”

So I got my damn surprise. And then some. As did everybody else.

It's the match that counts

• • •

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About tmabona

writer, reader [bolano, DW, bellow, deLillo], runner, badmintoneer
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