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In Tennis’s Longest Match, Victory Served in the 11th Hour

June 24, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Judy Woodruff speaks with Peter Bodo of Tennis Magazine for some perspective on the historically long Wimbledon showdown between American John Isner and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The longest tennis match in history concluded today at Wimbledon in England. American John Isner beat Frenchman Nicolas Mahut, after a match that lasted three days.

Richard Pallot of Independent Television News begins our coverage.

RICHARD PALLOT: It began as an ordinary first-round match. Eleven hours and five minutes later, it had become extraordinary. John Isner and Nicholas Mahut were near unknowns before, but record-breakers now.

Big embraced little with whatever strength they could still summon. The final set finished 70 games to 68, a basketball score, not a tennis one, Isner the winner, but a moment both will surely remember forever.

JOHN ISNER, professional tennis player: Honestly, when I — when I left the match yesterday, I really thought it was a dream. I didn’t think that was — the type of match was possible. And so I was really expecting to wake up, in all — in all seriousness.

RICHARD PALLOT: It began on Tuesday evening. By Wednesday tea time, they were five hours in, and not even halfway through. Standards never dropped, even if heads did occasionally.

At 47 all, the scoreboard had had enough. It had to be reprogrammed. As it’s a small court. Less than 1,000 could watch. But they stayed until late into last nigh, when the lights and the legs began to fail. Both returned refreshed for a third installment today, a contest that would take 183 games to decide.

JOHN ISNER: My coach actually, believe it or not, said jokingly before the tournament started that I will be able to play 10 hours.

JOHN ISNER: And that’s — that’s the truth.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, John Isner actually fought through an 11th hour.

And we get some thoughts now on the match from a close observer of the game. He’s Peter Bodo, senior columnist at “Tennis” magazine and Tennis.com.

Peter Bodo, have you ever seen anything like this?

PETER BODO, senior columnist, “Tennis”: Not in my all years covering tennis, and that goes back a pretty long way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How was this — we should clarify for viewers who don’t follow tennis. Why was it possible that it could go so long? There’s a rule, I guess, at Wimbledon and some of the other major tournaments about a tiebreaker.

PETER BODO: Well, Wimbledon — yes, Judy Wimbledon and the French Open do not use a fifth-set tiebreaker. Now, they use a tiebreaker going up to the fifth set.

And, so, but come the fifth set, they play it out in what you call advantage sets, which means you have to win by two games, just like you would — by two points in a regular game. So, you know, it opens a door to these kinds of matches.

Everyone thought, at the beginning of the tiebreaker era, that all these records for these longest matches, this and that, are going to stand forever, because now we have a tiebreaker. But Wimbledon and French Open have held out, no fifth-set tiebreaker, ergo today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tell us a little bit more about who these two players are, Isner and Mahut.

PETER BODO: Well, you know, one of the charming aspects of the story is that these are not two usual suspects.

You think — in your mind’s eye, you think of, you know, Federer-Nadal, like that great final they had, or known quantities like an Andy Roddick or someone. But Mahut, he — wonderful story at Wimbledon. He won the junior championships there. He’s now ranked 147 in the world. A lot of guys feel that he never really lived up to his potential.

He had to get into the tournament qualifying. He had a heck of a long qualifying match. I think it was like 20-18 in the third set just to get into the tournament. First round, he plays John Isner, an American kid, as everyone saw, a very laconic, casual kind of kid, who had gotten in basically only his second Wimbledon he has played.

He missed last year with mono. The year before, he lost in the first round.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how did they manage to do this, 11 hours of play over three days?

PETER BODO: Well, you know, you have to factor in that it was on grass.

I think the longest rally, I believe, was 17 strokes. The next longest was 12 strokes. And we’re going back to that 17-stroke rally, we’re going back to some time 3:00 yesterday afternoon.

PETER BODO: It was like 38 all or something.

But, you know, so, grass is fairly forgiving. You don’t have those really, really long points. On the other hand, there’s a lot of stress because there’s a lot of stretching and straining.

I think these two guys just got into a rhythm. They got sort of entranced — entranced by what was going on, and they just got carried along on a — sort of a wave.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the crowd stayed with them and the press stayed with them?

PETER BODO: The crowd and the press stayed with them, and I think that really helps. You talk about athletes reaching down deep to find something they didn’t think they had.

Well, in this case, it was almost like something came up to grab them and just kind of guided them along. You watched these guys. You know, you look at Mahut. He’s serving a down game, and Isner’s always ahead, 35-34, 48-47. And he’s staying — he’s playing to stay alive.

Every player on Earth will tell you that serving from behind is a really, really difficult thing. Yet, he goes and he serves, God, I don’t know, 48 games, 58 games in a row without being broken. It was just extraordinary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, does this have an effect on the game of tennis? More people going to start watching now?

PETER BODO: Well, some people are going to start screaming for a tiebreaker. There’s no question about that.

PETER BODO: But I hope more — I hope more people start watching. You know, it’s a wonderful game. We saw today the kind of performance it’s capable of producing. Both of these guys left everything out there.

Unfortunately, I think there were a couple of other events in world sports yesterday that blunted the impact maybe a little bit. But, no, I think everybody — this is one of those things, you go to Starbucks, people are talking about it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re right. I think you may be referring to the World Cup.

Peter Bodo of Tennis.com and “Tennis” magazine, thanks so much.

PETER BODO: You’re welcome.