To Mahut and Isner

I mentioned in an earlier post about the marathon match at Wimbledon today between American John Isner and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut.  The match has already gone on for 10 hours and was suspended, picking up tomorrow afternoon.

James LaRosa at the Tennis Channel wrote an amazing blog entry about why the match is amazing and what it says about tennis.  I really like it and am going to post the whole thing after the jump.

Dear Nicolas Mahut and John Isner,

Saw the match today. Rather, saw the fifth set. I’ve got a few things I want to say.

First, a confession. I barely watched your first four sets. Here and there, sure, but there was a lot going on at the time. Every player has my utmost respect, absolutely nothing personal, but a first round match on Court 18 wasn’t exactly top priority with everything else going down. You understand.

Okay, another confession. Once you hit the teens in the number of games played, I sort of had my fill. This is where one of you should pack it in. The tennis was serviceable, but it wasn’t Roddick/Federer.

The players outlasted the scoreboard.

Once you hit the 20’s, I thought, what it this Davis Cup? You made your point. It’s a first round match, I know it’s Wimbledon and all but how badly could you each want this? Clearly irritability had set in. The score was now the most dramatic thing about the match, not the match itself.

And then we got into the 30’s (sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? I can’t believe I’m writing it either). This is where my phone really started ringing, when my email started to blow up. Friends who vaguely know I work in tennis, who vaguely follow it themselves, were now facebooking me asking if this was real. I was starting to ask myself the same question.

This is where the records started falling. I say started because it was a freefall from here on:

* Most games in a fifth set. * Most aces served in a match. * The first 7 hour match, the first 8 hour match…

As we got into the 40’s, and excitement turned to numbness, quality caught up with quantity. You both weren’t waiting for mistakes, you were going for winners. My guilt caught up with me here too. I had wanted this match to just finish already, for someone to pull the ripcord, tap out, and now I was riveted. Who was going to flinch first? And did I have the stomach to witness it?

I wasn’t alone. Not only were my friends circling me, but online (where, sadly, much of a writer’s life takes place these days) there was an entire world watching with me. A community of people I’ve never met, from Bangkok to Peru, Sydney to Athens, all blown away, all picking up each other’s jaws, all chiming in, all sharing this moment.

We’re into the 50’s. We have the first 9 hour match. Both of you have broken the ace record. At this point, all I could think with every at bat was, God, I would not want to lose this match. I would not want to lose this match. I would not want to lose this match. But with each passing game, with more and more at stake, you continued to go for it. You showed no fear. Even when your bodies were screaming at you, you fought. Even when your minds were screaming at you, you fought. And fought. And fought.

And fought.

Coming up with new ways to describe what was going on was impossible. This happens in uncharted territory. You run out of words. We’re all punch-drunk. A breakpoint should’ve made me thrilled – the finish line! – but I felt dread. Dread that one of you should have to lose.

And then, at 59-59, the match was suspended for lack of light.

As much as delayed gratification is about my least favorite thing in life, I’m ultimately relieved. For a few hours anyway, there are no losers. And you can say there are no losers in this match, and you’d be 100% right, but tell that to the guy who doesn’t walk off with the W.

John, you were exhausted, each groundstroke accompanied not by a grunt but by a full-body heave, but you kept going.

Nicolas, 55. That’s the number of times you had to walk up to the line and serve to stay in this match. And 55 is the number of times you held. God bless Andy Roddick and his 16-14 fifth set last year, but you sir are a stud.

So while one of you will get the W tomorrow (presumably, this match may never end), this right here is how I’ll remember it. Suspended, and suspended in time. Two boxers going at it, giving the world something to talk about and be inspired by.

So thank you. For not only making tennis history, and getting people talking about tennis who otherwise wouldn’t be, and entertaining us all with your strength of will and strength of legs. For not just breaking records and making Pam Shriver misty and leaving Federer, Djokovic, Venus et al at a lack of words to describe your awesomeness. For not just creating this communal experience for everyone. But for showing me all over again why two random guys on Court 18 can create something truly beautiful.

Thanks for reminding me why I love tennis so much.

Good luck tomorrow guys. I’ll be watching every minute.

James LaRosa

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