Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Isner-Mahut Marathon

For those among you who are not tennis fans (hard as it is to imagine), the news of the first week of the Wimbledon tennis championships was the five-set marathon between American John Isner and Frenchman Nicholas Mahut. There were five sets, and the score was roughly this: 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 6-7, 70-68.

Wimbledon is one of the few tennis tournaments that has not gone to the tiebreaker for the final set (the French Open is another). The match goes on until someone wins by two games. The fifth set, then, was some three times as long as the rest of the match, and it was played on a knife-edge throughout: one service break game, and the match would be over (and that's what finally happened, after some 168 consecutive service games held, Isner broke Mahut's serve and the match was indeed over).

There were several admirable aspects of the match: really good serving by both players, incredible tenacity, physical endurance, patience, emotional stability, great bladder control (!) and good sportsmanship. Isner has risen to the top 20 in men's tennis with a powerful, accurate serve, and in this match, Mahut--a qualifier who's just outside the top 100--was close to his equal in serving. What it was not was exceptional tennis: the only reason a match would go on that long is because neither player could break the other's serve. Most of the points were aces, service winners, or at most a couple of shots long.

The long deadlock (basically seven hours of serve and re-serve, on Thursday: the match had been suspended for darkness on Wednesday after the first four sets, and the finale was "just" an hour and a half and 15 games or so on Friday) gradually caught the attention of the tennis world as it dragged on, and there were a ton of single-match records broken. Still, I wouldn't call it epic--the Federer-Roddick finals from last year was much more impressive (though similar in its fifth-set stalemate, just not lasting quite as long, but with much more at stake). The stakes were not really so high--it was a first-round match, and pretty much suicidal from the point of view of the tournament. After the three-day match threw off the schedule (that's pronounced "shedule"), Isner had to come back the next day and was promptly ousted from the tournament in a quickie, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2. It will be interesting to see how quickly Isner and Mahut recover from the marathon and return to full strength; also, to see how much commercial mileage they can make from their new fame.

It's perhaps surprising there hasn't been such a ridiculous fifth-set in the past--either in the decades (centuries?) that Wimbledon and the other majors had five-set matches without tiebreakers before it was invented in the 70's, or in the modern era when many men's matches feature few or no service breaks. It's only because there are so few tournaments which have this rule of playing to the bitter end, so the frequency is low.

If I were running Wimbledon, I would react to this extreme result by changing the rules a little--not radically, as we are English and traditional and all that, and not being just like everyone else. There are too many problems of scheduling, and fairness in the subsequent matches, to allow play without end. I'd set a maximum of about 20 games each before going to the tiebreaker in all the rounds except the final, in which the traditional rule would be maintained.

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