Isner on his Wimbledon marathon: ‘Whole world was captivated’
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Art Spander in John Isner, Wimbledon, articles, tennis

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — The plaque is still there, attached to the weathered bricks outside Court 18. John Isner saw it Thursday morning. Again.

“I didn’t stop and stare by any means,” he said. Others do. Thousands of others.

Court 18 is where Isner and Nicolas Mahut played, as the opening words of the plaque tell us, “The Longest Match.”

Not just at Wimbledon but anywhere, five sets and the match ending 70-68; 11 hours 5 minutes over three days, June 22-24, 2010. No tie-breaker in the fifth set at Wimbledon.

It was historic. It was magnificent. It was awful.

Mahut was so battered physically and mentally that it took him months to regain his strength, confidence and touch. And even the winner, Isner, had trouble recovering. Not that Isner has any regrets. 

“It was such a crazy match,” he said, “that the whole world was captivated by that match. I’m not exaggerating there.”

Not at all. Two guys played one match for three days? You've got to be kidding. We weren’t. Tennis had a landmark.

What Isner, now 33, had the last two days was another extended match, this time on Court 12, and this time much quicker, 3 hours 46 minutes. He beat Ruben Bemelmans of Belgium, 6-1, 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-7 (3), 7-5.

He beat Bemelmans and that electronic linesperson, “Hawk-eye,” which on Wednesday blew a call just like a human and caused Isner to rant — until a few hours later he reflected.

“I mean, of course I’ve been in this situation before,” said Isner, about the rain that halted play in the fifth set Wednesday, “where a match was not finished, and I’m not talking about 2010.”

Although he said doesn’t mind everyone else talking about it, “because that match we played eight years ago was such a big event.”

Isner is 6-foot-10 — “If I knew I would be that tall,” said the man who was a high school center in North Carolina, “I would have stayed with basketball.” Instead he concentrated on tennis and became an All-American and NCAA tournament finalist at the University of Georgia. 

A man that tall ought to have a brilliant serve. Isner does. Against Bemelmans in the five sets, Isner recorded 64 aces, the third most ever in a match at Wimbledon. In the 11-hour match, Isner had 113 aces, Mahut 103. Which is why it lasted 11 hours. How do you break serve when you can’t return?

But like home run hitters, Isner has off days. His best at Wimbledon is the third round, where he is now. It’s not easy at his height to play those half volleys or to move around effortlessly. Not that in his career he hasn’t beaten Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

At nine, Isner is the highest seeded American in the men’s draw. He said he has developed a hang-loose attitude, not forcing the issue and remaining under control. In the French Open last month, he said “I just went out there with nothing to lose and played the big points well.”

It’s been unseasonably hot in Greater London, with temperatures reaching the mid 80s by late afternoon. The evenings are warm enough that a jacket is not needed. Maybe too warm for a man who was trying to sleep on Wednesday night while thinking of a match he already should have won.

“It was tough,” he conceded, “All the stuff is running through my head. I’m half asleep. I’m not really asleep. We have all been there. You have something weighing on you.

“But you know I didn’t feel tired today. I had a lot of adrenaline running through my body. The third day of my really long match in 2010, I thought I would feel tired and I didn’t. This is nothing like that but pretty similar.”

So the words don’t make a lot of sense. First the anger about Hawk-eye, then the rain, now the questions. Let’s return to the match against Mahut.

“After it finished,” said Isner, “it will go down in history, and I was a part of it. So I think especially the casual tennis fan, that’s what they know of me, and that’s fine. I like to think that since then I’ve done a lot of good stuff in my career to shed that lasting image.”

Good stuff, but so far nothing else worthy of a plaque on Wimbledon’s walls.

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