The match that time forgot
Nobody goes to Court 18 expecting to stay long.
Right on the edge of the All England Tennis Club, and very much in the shadow of Centre Court, number 18 is a no-go area for seeded players and fans at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships. Matches are usually as brief as they are inconsequential — and then everyone moves on.
So when someone suggested I drop in on Court 18 to check out a match between two largely unknown players – John Isner from the United States, and Nicolas Mahut of France – I can probably be forgiven for thinking I’d be in and out of there pretty quickly.
It looked as if it was almost finished when I arrived. The game had already been carried over from the previous day due to bad light and the players were now in the fifth set with the score at 20-20.
There are no fifth set tiebreaks at Wimbledon, which can occasionally lead to long bouts, but someone usually breaks serve to end the game. I was about to get lunch, but thought I’d hang on since the game looked near its conclusion.
I ran to the rooftop of the broadcast center — a multi-story building overlooking the court — to shoot from a high angle. I thought, as the players had been going since the previous day and all morning, it was likely a winner would fall to the ground with excitement and exhaustion, making for a great photograph.
I needn’t have rushed. As the hot London sun baked down on court 18, drenching the players in sweat and gently frying an ill-prepared audience, the game pressed on. Match point followed match point, followed match point. Minutes became hours and the end – always tantalizingly close – simply never arrived.
It was clearly tough on the players. Punch drunk with exhaustion, both men flopped around the court, the effort etched on their faces.
But they weren’t the only ones suffering. The audience began fashioning hats out of newspapers to ease the sunburn, the umpire (clearly reveling in his role at the heart of a suddenly historic match) could be seen performing stretching exercises during pauses in play, and the electronic scoreboard crashed, freezing the game rather optimistically at 50-50.
And still it went on. Beyond exhaustion, Mahut took to wrapping himself in a womb of colorful towels between each set, as if to protect himself from an audience he could no longer cope with. As the normally bounteous supply of bananas dwindled, a resourceful Isner managed to acquire a tennis racket-sized sandwich, which he ate in massive gulps, Scooby Doo-style.
At this point the spectacle began to feel like a carnival sideshow, almost uncomfortable to witness. The boxing analogy is obvious because these two men did look like prize fighters: both in no condition to fight on, but compelled by sheer determination — and Wimbledon’s hidebound traditions — to do so.
At fifty-nine games all in the fifth, victory had still not occurred and the match was again halted due to low light. The break must have offered some respite to the players, but if they felt even half as tense as I did overnight, they must have continued to suffer.
The tensions were ratcheted up further overnight as news of the match spread, prompting a huge audience turnout the following morning. There were calls for the game, now generating headlines worldwide, to be moved to Centre Court, but Wimbledon’s traditions prevailed once more. It started in Court 18, it would finish in Court 18 … hopefully.
My heart was racing as Isner and Mahut arrived for their third day of play. How they must have felt I had no idea — that is until play started when Mahut at least gave me a very personal insight into the pressure he was under.
Since this match had become essentially about the players’ serve, I positioned myself at ground level to get a better angle, hoping victory would occur on my side of the court
Isner served first, and I snapped away. Then Mahut took his turn and as I snapped, he snapped. Clearly, the sound of my shutter broke his concentration. He glared at me and, chastened, I took my finger off the shutter during subsequent serves.
After a few games, he returned to my side of the court and as he was about to serve, a flock of pigeons began to chirp loudly. He glared at the pigeons. Next serve, he was back to glaring at me. Mistakenly blaming me for an audience member’s shutter noise, he turned and angrily mouthed something at me. Given the pressure he was under, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt it was without malice.
In the end, it was Isner that broke Mahut’s serve. He celebrated his stunning 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68 victory on my side of the court and I celebrated the end of an incredibly dramatic, energy-sapping, world-record tennis marathon — and finally left Court 18.