Mahut v Isner, 59-59: An epic for the ages  //  "Game Mahut. 59 games all, final set"

24 Jun 2010 Posted by

Update:  The marathon match finally ended, the USA’s John Isner claiming an extra-ordinary 70-68 victory in the fifth and final set.  Below is a post that was written at 59-59 in the fifth, when play was halted due to light on the second day.

The match will go down as one of the truly great sporting events, and one of the most amazing tennis matches played, simply because of the sheer length of the match (11 hours), the tenacity of the players to hold serve 68 consecutive times (69 for Isner, of course), and for the mind-blowing physiological challenge it would impose.

History will document the number of records broken by the epic.  It was also show that John Isner collapsed, as predicted, in his next match against Thiemo de Bakker, losing 6-0, 6-3, 6-2.  This is hardly surprising, and would have been expected given his efforts over 183 games against Mahut.  Some of the physiology is explained below.

The longest match ever played

John IsnerIt was, simply, an extra-ordinary feat of consistency, big serving and willpower, in a match that eventually concluded after 11 hours and five minutes.  The scoreboard couldn’t stand the pace – the picture to the right was taken at 47-47, and at 50-50, it went blank…

Not surprisingly, the match has seen all kinds of records broken:

  • Longest match in history in terms of games played at 183 .  The previous record was 112 matches between Pancho Gonzales and and Charlie Pasarell in 1969.  And that was before the introduction of the tie-break in sets 1 to 4.  Post tie-breakers, the record was Andy Roddick’s 21-19 win over Younes el Aynaoui in Australia in 2003.  That match had 83 games, which means Isner-Mahut is about to double it!
  • Longest match in history in terms of time played – 11 hours 5 mintues.  In fact, the fifth set in the Isner-Mahut match is longer than any match ever played!  It’s taken 8 hours 11 minutes to play, and the previous longest match ever played was 6 hours, 33 minutes long (Santoro vs Clement, French Open 2004)
  • Most aces ever served.  It’s not surprising, but given 59 services games in the final set alone, both players have easily surpassed the aces record, which stood at 78 to Ivo Karlovic in a Davis Cup match in 2009.  As it stands, Isner is the new record holder at 112 aces, and Mahut is on 103!
  • A total of 980 points has been played.  I’m not 100% sure whether this is a record, but even a match with 100 games would be unlikely to see 900 points played – I would estimate that the number of points per game is 6.  So 980 points is likely to be a record.
Nicolas Mahut of France takes a break, during his men's singles match against John Isner of the US, at the All England Lawn Tennis Championships at Wimbledon, Wednesday, June 23, 2010. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Nicolas Mahut of France takes a break, during his men’s singles match against John Isner of the US, at the All England Lawn Tennis Championships at Wimbledon, Wednesday, June 23, 2010. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

Looking a bit more deeply into the stats, and if you watched the second night, the set hardly really looked like ending!  There were two moments – one at 33-32 (or something, I forget, it was so long ago) when Isner had two break points on Mahut’s serve.  The Frenchman saved them, and it would take another 40-odd games before the next break points – this time to Mahut.  And then in the final game of the night, Mahut dug deep again to save a fourth match point.

On both occasions, brilliant serving rescued the situation and the match continued.  Isner in particular, produced remarkable serving, only because he looked so exhausted after about the 90th game that it seemed almost inconceivable that he could continue to survive.  Between points, Isner looked more like an Ironman triathlete having the worst day of his life than a tennis player, making almost statuesque movements as he seemed to stagger from one side of the court to the other.  But with the ball in hand, he smashed down unreturnable serves one after the other, and the quality of the play, given the occasion, was quite remarkable.

Mahut’s performance is no less amazing.  In fact, in many respects, it’s quite astonishing – Mahut had to qualify for Wimbledon by playing three matches – the second one went to 24-22 in the fifth set!  And then the third went to five sets as well – he won it 6-4.  So Mahut has now played three consecutive five set matches.  And the third of them, well, it’s the equivalent of about about 13 fifth sets!  And yet he continued to run with energy, making some amazing shots off the ground, in addition to his ever rising ace count.

The physiological demand of 10 hours of tennis?

I’m always curious about what the physiological demands are of sport and this type of match demands that kind of question!  Using GPS, it would be quite simple to get a handle on how many times a player changes direction, stops and then accelerates again, as well as distance covered.  Unfortunately, that is not done for tennis like it is for football (as we’ve seen in our 2010 WC coverage).  However, a couple of estimations/assumptions may give you an idea of why this would be interesting:

  • With 980 points in the match, one might assume an average rally length of 2 shots per player (serving was dominant, so rallies would be short).  Two shots means four changes of direction, because a player must run to the ball, play the shot, and then return to court position.
  • The distance covered per point might then be about 10m.  So that gives us ± 4,400 changes of direction, and 10 km of running, much of which is sideways, and most of which consists of short accelerations to the ball, followed by rapid decelerations.  Add to this the walking between points, which is at least another 15m, and the total distance covered is closer to 30km.
  • That may not seem significant (if you come from an endurance sport background), but remember that each run is ended with a sudden stop, and an acceleration to return to good court position.  And, you’re not moving forward in a straight line, but sideways.  So you’re looking at about 2000 lateral “sprints” making up about 10km, by my assumptions.
  • The deceleration is perhaps the most demanding part – stopping, and then driving off the same leg in the other direction imposes a significant challenge, which you can easily experience by going out and doing lateral runs over 5m for even 10 minutes
  • Every serve is a jump – so that’s 491 jumps for Mahut and 489 jumps for Isner.  They may be small, but each jump and landing comes at a cost and I can only imagine how tired their legs will be today.  The problem with jumping is that when landing, the muscle must perform an eccentric contraction, where it decelerations the body.  This type of contraction causes microscopic damage to the muscle, and this is ultimately responsible for the failure of muscle, which was so visibly demonstrated on the second night.  Also, Isner’s sluggishness during his next match, a straight-sets loss to de Bakker, could be attributed to the muscle damage and recovery from this kind of jumping, combined with multiple decelerations.
  • Then there’s the significant matter of having to swing a racket through the ball at least 2000 times, and the upper body fatigue that this would cause.  All in all, an incredible challenge to sustain this for 10 hours.

Of course, these are assumptions, I’d love to have real data, but sadly, tennis doesn’t seem to invite that kind of research (unless I’m missing something).  Then there is the mental pressure of being in what is really ‘sudden death’, particularly for Mahut, who is serving second.

To be continued…

In any event, what was interesting is that when the match was eventually suspended for darkness, it was Isner who seemed most reluctant to leave.  He seemed to be moving more and more slowly, and John McEnroe suggested that he looked “delirious”.  Mahut was saying he could no longer see the ball, and the match was suspended.  It resumes at 3.30pm today, and given how these things go, it might well go another 20 matches (or more), or it could be over in 2.

It may seem like an anticlimax, and to have finished last night in the gloom would have been a fitting end.  But nothing can take away from what is surely one of the greatest tests of mental, tactical and physical strength that we have seen.

And for the winner – a match against Thiemo de Bakker, later in the same day…

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