At first, John Isner thought it was a joke, and not a particularly funny one.
A year after the 26-year-old American and Nicolas Mahut played the longest match in tennis history at Wimbledon, they face each other again in the first round today.
Last year’s opening round, which was played over three days and took 11 hours, 5 minutes, ended in victory for Isner. The American collapsed on the grass of a packed Court 18 when his backhand passing shot secured a record-packed 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (7-3), 70-68 win against the Frenchman.
Last week, a collective gasp and then laughter filled the room at the draw ceremony as Wimbledon referee Andrew Jarrett announced Mahut would be Isner’s first-round opponent.
“I was shocked, absolutely shocked,” Isner said in an interview at the All England Club shortly before the start of the tournament. “Your first instinct is, that draw is rigged, but obviously it’s not. It’s a complete and total coincidence.”
Their match is scheduled on Court 3. Yesterday’s play on the outside courts was stopped at 5 p.m., leaving matches including Andy Roddick of the U.S. against Germany’s Andreas Beck unplayed and re-scheduled for today. Also today, women’s defending champion Serena Williams will take on France’s Aravane Rezai as the American appears in her first Grand Slam event after almost a year away because of a foot injury and treatment for blood clots in both lungs in February. Roger Federer of Switzerland starts his quest for a seventh title against Mikhail Kukushkin of Kazakhstan.
Isner and Mahut’s 138-game fifth set lasted 8 hours and 11 minutes. That itself was longer than the previous record match, a 6-hour, 33-minute first-round contest at the 2004 French Open between Frenchmen Fabrice Santoro and Arnaud Clement. The All England Club has mounted an oval-shaped plaque on Court 18 to commemorate their effort.
“When I announced 50-all final set, the spectators gave a standing ovation to the players,” Mohamed Lahyani, a Swedish umpire who was in charge of the longest match, said in an interview at Queen’s Club in London. “That was a great feeling. You could see they were smiling, there was a nice atmosphere, they did the wave for them. You could really see what kind of appreciation the crowd gave the players.”
Isner and Mahut, who had previously never spoken, have become good friends since their record-breaking first round. They plan to play doubles together at an event in Atlanta next month.
A practice session they had planned was canceled after the draw because it would attract too much attention, Mahut, 29, told French sports newspaper L’Equipe last week.
After a year of talking about their last meeting, Isner said he had been looking forward to “put the match behind me.”
That will be impossible now, he said. “The tennis gods have it out for us, they wanted us to meet again. That’s the only way I can explain it.”
Isner produced 112 aces while Mahut had 103. Both broke Ivo Karlovic’s record of 78 in a Davis Cup match for Croatia against the Czech Republic in 2009. Isner lost in the second round a day later against Thiemo de Bakker of the Netherlands because he could barely move.
“I still think about that match and I can’t believe it happened,” 18-time Grand Slam singles champion Chris Evert said on a conference call organized by broadcaster ESPN last week. “How is that humanly possible to hold serve for that long for that many games and somebody not break down or choke or whatever?”
Roger Federer told a pre-tournament news conference their match had been “very special and unbelievable.”
‘Glued to TV’
“I went on court when they were midway through the fifth set,” the Swiss said. “I finished a tough four-setter on Court 1, came back, and they were stuck at 30-all, 30-all. Then obviously I watched a bit at the end, did some press, came back, and watched again. Then it got interrupted again. Then the following day we were all glued to the TV.”
Seeded 23rd last year, Isner has dropped to No. 47 on the ATP World Tour rankings. Mahut, who had been ranked at No. 148 a year ago, is now at No. 94.
“I’ve regressed a little bit,” Isner, a six-foot-nine right-hander, said.
His close first-round loss at the French Open to top seed Rafael Nadal has given him confidence, he said. The Spaniard beat Isner, but was forced to a fifth set for the first time at Roland Garros. Nadal went on to claim a sixth title in Paris.
“I did take him to the limit,” Isner said. “I could have had a shot at winning that match, if a few more things had gone my way.”
Isner said he just wishes he hadn’t been drawn against Mahut.
“We didn’t want to play each other in the first round, I think he would say the same thing, because somebody is going to go home as the loser in the first round,” he said. “I’m sure this one won’t be as memorable as last year. That’s impossible.”