Wimbledon's 10-hour tussle set for third day
Wimbledon's modern-day gladiators John Isner and Nicolas Mahut will return to battle it out for a third day on Court 18 to finish one of the most incredible tennis matches ever played, the longest on record by a country mile with the clock at exactly 10 hours when play was suspended due to poor light at just after 9pm, with the score standing at an incredible 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(9-7) 6-7(3-7), 59-59.
By the time the contest was halted, the two protagonists could barely stand, let alone make it back to the locker room. But they will have to make the return journey on Thursday, when the match resumes as the third match on the same court.
Darkness brought a premature end to a final set that had already featured a mind-boggling 118 games. Much earlier in the day, the match had resumed at two-sets all, having already been a titanic struggle on Tuesday. Surely a contest between the American 23rd seed and the French qualifier ranked 148 in the world would be quickly settled. But Mahut, a finalist at Queen's in 2007, is an adept competitor on grass and was not ready to give an inch. And as Britain's Alex Bogdanovic would testify, after being beaten 3-6, 6-3, 24-22 by Mahut in last week's qualifying tournament, the Frenchman is not easily put away.
So throughout a long day, ballboys and ballboys came and went, teams of linespeople were replaced, in another sporting arena England qualified for the knock-out stages of the World Cup, but Isner and Mahut kept on slugging it out, even when the courtside scoreboard gave up the ghost.
To quickly sum up the key records: 10 hours is a new record for the longest tennis match played at Wimbledon, at any Grand Slam, in fact anywhere since someone first picked up a racket and decided to thwack a ball with it. And for those who measure length by the number of games in a match, it set a new record by that measure as well. And there's at least two more games to come.
At the start of the afternoon, everyone was wondering whether Isner could finish up where he had left off and set a new record for aces struck in a Wimbledon match, the 78 held by Ivo Karlovic. By the end of the day, he had knocked the particular record into next weekend by setting a new mark of 98. But by the end of play tomorrow, it could be even higher or he could himself be eclipsed by a certain Mr N Mahut, who has smashed down 95 so far and counting.
Like all these events at Wimbledon, it took a while for word to get round that history was being made. But before long everyone inside the All England Club was entranced. Crowds swarmed round the big screen to watch on Henman Hill, queues snaked around the court and the likes of John McEnroe, Tim Henman and Gael Monfils were seen looking on in disbelief from the roof garden overlooking Court 18.
First it became the longest ever contest at Wimbledon, breaking the previous record of six hours and nine minutes set by a men's doubles in 2006, before overtaking Arnaud Clement and Fabrice Santoro's six-hour, 33-minute 2004 French Open epic, previously the sport's longest encounter. To underline what an epic contest Isner v Mahut has become, the final set alone, at seven hours and six minutes, beats all those now-obsolete records for match lengths.
As well as becoming the longest ever match in terms of time on court, it is also the longest ever in games played, its current tally of 163 beating the previous record - a 122-game 1973 Davis Cup doubles - by a mile.
In some ways, the quality of the tennis was the most impressive feature of the match. The players would have been forgiven for a dip in concentration, a sloppy volley here and there, but neither man let up, producing grass court tennis of a surprisingly high quality despite a fifth set that resembled a basketball score rather than anything ever seen on a tennis court.
Isner teetered on the brink of victory when he held double match point on Mahut's serve at 32-33, only for the Frenchman to wriggle out of danger with a fine volley and a service winner.
After a standing ovation when the scores reached 50-all, the next game featured double break point for Mahut - his first opportunity to take the Isner serve since game one of the second set. But after an unreturnable serve and a thundering overhead the chance was gone.
At 59-58 - the final game of the evening - Mahut saved yet another match point, Isner's fourth, with a 94th ace and moments later that was that. As the fans started to wonder how much light was left, a brief chat between players and officials resulted in an announcement that a third day would be needed to settle it.
"We've both been serving fantastic - I'd love to see the statistics!" said Isner as he left the court. "Nothing like this will ever happen again - ever."
But then again, tomorrow's a brand new day.