THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bud Collins

Fifth set is endlessly intriguing

Wimbledon match suspended at 59-59

The Isner-Mahut score has to be seen to be believed — and there it is. The Isner-Mahut score has to be seen to be believed — and there it is. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
By Bud Collins
Globe Correspondent / June 24, 2010

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LONDON — Shall we call it “The Johnny and Nico Show’’? Two young guys skipping about on a grassy stage at an outdoor theater called Wimbledon, and hoping “you’ll tune in again tomorrow because we aren’t finished yet.’’

So here are American John Isner and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut, a soap opera in short pants, playing the tennis match that may never end.

Already they have given their interpretation of O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,’’ as the moon’s appearance ended their first two acts, Tuesday and yesterday. They also threw in a bit of Sartre’s “No Exit’’ because they can’t escape Court 18 where the show that goes on-and-on and on-and-on is to continue today.

This is probably the best setting for the phantasmagorical opening-round duel because Wimbledon, the original tennis tournament producer since 1877, has experienced everything that could happen in the game. Until now. Until John and Nico indulged in a match that kept growing out of control like some sci-fi monster for 10 hours and 4 minutes. But still no decision.

Now, you don’t have to know anything about tennis to realize that two guys batting balls at each other for more than 10 hours is an unnatural act. Nobody had done it before. Could this match go on for a week? Or forever? We may find out soon.

Certainly, in creating the most remarkably bizarre collision in tennis history, Isner, from Greensboro, N.C., and Mahut, out of Angers, France, are innocent, not subject to punishment.

“He’s a real champ,’’ said Mahut. “We’re fighting like never before. We didn’t want to stop either day.’’

But the moon and the referee ruled otherwise, and they were paroled, for a while, at — get this! — 59-59 in the fifth set at 9:10 p.m. That sounds like a basketball game, not a tennis set. At least they didn’t run out of balls.

“Nothing like this will ever happen again. Ever,’’ said Isner, the 6-foot-9-inch US Davis Cupper who seems to be serving aces from a treetop. “I’d like to see our stats. I have no idea how many aces we’ve served.’’

When they took time out to sleep Tuesday, they were locked at two sets apiece. On Mahut’s terms: 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (9-7), 6-7 (3-7). That took 2:54, nothing unusual.

However, like a hurricane, the 118-game fifth set (unfinished) struck, lasting 7:10 of never-say-die battling. In that time, Mahut could have made a round-trip train journey to his home in France.

But his journey across from Isner was wilder. They were like cellmates going for each other’s jugular. Their shotmaking smorgasbord was at times brilliant, and they had more aces up their sleeves than a crooked gambler. Isner banked 98, Mahut 95, both breaking the all-time record of 78 held by the 6-10 Croat, Ivo Karlovic, and Karlovic’s Wimbledon mark of 51.

Their numbers easily topped anything before them in times, sets, matches. The oldest Wimbledon record erased was 112 games in which Pancho Gonzalez beat Charlie Pasarell in 1969.

Throughout the fifth set, they were both in trouble, but wriggled out. Mahut, serving second, the even games, ducked four match points along the way.

Up the two climbed, through the teens, the 20s, the 30s, the 40s, and 50s, imperiled but always coming up with the needed shot as the bloated set kept expanding. They stuck together like peanut butter and jelly. Isner hit 218 winners to Mahut’s 217.

Meanwhile, Roger Federer was roughed up for the second time by an unknown. First it was Alejandro Falla, who took him to five sets. And yesterday Serbian qualifier Ilija Bozoljac, No. 152, was a big nuisance before the champion pulled away, 6-3, 6-7 (4-7), 6-4, 7-6 (7-5).

But he couldn’t upstage Isner and Mahut.

“It was a special match,’’ said Federer. “I went on court at 11-all, and they were still going when I finished.

“I didn’t know whether I was laughing or crying. It was absolutely amazing. Even though John could hardly move at the end, he came up with big shots.

“In a way, I wish I was them, in some ways I wish I wasn’t them. So this is a very special match. I hope somehow this is going to end. I don’t know.’’

Nobody else does, either. But “The Johnny and Nico Show’’ is unique. Every game adds to the records, so don’t miss today’s episode, when somebody has to lose.

Maybe.

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