Alix’s World: The Endless Match

Written by: on 24th June 2010
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Alix's World: The Endless Match  |

It was m’learned friend, Ivan, from the Daily Mail in London who added the final twist to a bizarre Day Three at the world most prestigious endurance event. “Hey,” he said, brightly as we trudged towards the car park in the gloaming, “do you think the Americans will understand cricket after this?” He is always looking on the bright side, is Ivan.

And maybe Ivan is right. Maybe the good people of the United States will now finally get the hang of our odd little national game, a match that can last for days and still end in a draw.

You see, Nicolas Mahut and John Isner had spent most of Wednesday shattering records – and themselves – when bad light finally called them off court at 9.11pm. For seven hours and six minutes, they had been trying to finish off a first round match that had been interrupted by bad light on Tuesday. On Tuesday, they were all square at two sets apiece after two hours and 56 minutes. By the end of Wednesday, they were still tied. At 59-59 in the fifth set. No, do not adjust your monitors – that really does read 59-59.

The fifth set alone had lasted longer than the previous longest match recorded at a grand slam tournament (Arnaud Clement vs Fabrice Santoro at the French Open in 2004, a mere six hours and 33 minutes). In all, Mahut and Isner had been at it for 10 hours. And still they were not finished.

So long was that fifth set that the scoreboard blew a gasket, fused a synapse and went for a lie down. The IBM system that pumps scores, match timings and stats around the grounds of the All England Club simply could not cope with a set score that went beyond 50-all. So while the scoreboard on Court 18 went dark, the brains of the computer reset itself and suddenly, on the internet scoring, we were back to 0-0 in the fifth. What seemed like a week later, the computer reckoned it was still only 9-9 in the fifth by the time they limped off court.

Isner was clean-shaven when he started Wednesday’s shift but looked awfully stubbly by the time he clocked off. He also looked as if he was ready to keel over. He was so knackered that he even seemed depressed when he won a point, mainly because it meant that he had to play another one. This was tantric tennis: it went on forever and never reached, shall we say, a natural conclusion (and, yes, that is a British euphemism).

Mahut, meanwhile, had obviously taken a squint at the IBM computer and, thinking that he had only played a handful of games in the fifth set, was still nipping about like a whippet with its tail on fire. One spectacular dive – it was 50-something all by then – was worthy of an Italian striker looking for a penalty (you didn’t think we could get through this without some reference to the World Cup, did you?).

Roger Federer headed out for his second round match while the two marathon men were locked at 11-11. He came back four sets later, having dispatched Ilija Bozoljac, and Court 18 was still in full flow. They were still thwacking away by the time the Great One had done his press conference – and the Fed does not like to hurry to talk to the media, not when he could spend an extra 20 minutes doing his hair and pressing his RF branded sweatshirt.

As the day wore on, some of the ballkids had time to graduate from university and pass their driving test. A couple of them got married, had kids and then divorced. And still Mahut and Isner were level pegging.

Poor Alan Little must have been having kittens. He is the lovely gent who not only runs the Wimbledon library, he also compiles The Wimbledon Compendium, a veritable treasure trove of facts and figures relating to The Championships. Each year, he releases an updated version but, in truth, he only has to tweak the main body of the book. Or he did until Wednesday. All references to longest matches, longest sets, most number of games, most number of aces, most number of frazzled journalists, longest queues for the lavs around Court 18 – all of that had to be rewritten. And he may have do it all again after they get back to work on Thursday.

Isner did have a chance to end it all, mind you. He had two match points in the 66th game of the fifth set. Mahut, though, saved them and we were still tied at 33-33. And there were weeks to go yet. He had another match point about a month later, but still Mahut would not give way.

Now here is a phrase you never thought you would hear on the commentary feed: “And with his 78th ace, he levels the scores at 50-50…” But that is what Mahut did. And that is what Mahut kept on doing, much to Isner’s disbelief. In all, the big man from North Carolina (by way of Tampa) pumped down 98 aces while Mahut was chasing close behind with 95. The record for aces in a match before these two started work was Ivo Karlovic with 78. It was in the Davis Cup last year – and Karlovic lost to Radek Stepanek. 78? Call that a record? Do me a favour.

“He’s serving fantastic; I’m serving fantastic,” Isner said as he packed his bags in the twilight. “That’s about all there is to it. I’d love to see that stats.”

Wouldn’t we all, love, but the IBM computer is still having a nervous breakdown in the corner.

So Isner and Mahut will be at it again on Day Four as they try to finish their never ending first round match, provided, that is, that either of them can get out of bed in the morning. They are due on court at “not before 3.30pm”.

And if today is anything to go by, they will still be on court at “sometime after 9pm” by which time the ballkids will have handed over their duties to their own grandchildren, to score will be in six figures each and the IBM computer will have handed in its notice on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour on the part of the players and a programming error on the part of its maker.

Oh, and Ivan might be proved right – America may have learned enough about utterly ludicrous sporting occasions to realise that cricket – that weird little sport that is only played at the top level by seven nations, can go on for five days, stops for lunch, tea and drinks and that can, after those five days, end in a draw – ain’t so silly after all.

As a footnote, would like to explain the scheduling on Day Four of The Championships.

On the day that the Queen is coming to Centre Court, Serena Williams, the defending champion in the delightfully named “Ladies Singles” (PC hasn’t yet managed to cut its way through the ivy clad walls of the All England Club) has been parked out on Court Two. And she had been practising her curtseying and everything. Surely that is a snub of right royal proportions. Er, no.

Before anyone of a republican – and we are spelling that with a lower case “r” – persuasion starts to gets upset, there is a diplomatic reason for this court assignment.

Serena is the defending champion. She, therefore, deserves respect and attention. But Her Maj has a busy schedule. Her Maj, being the Queen of Britain, is here to see Andy Murray, the king of Britain’s tennis courts and the heir apparent to the world’s courts.

Her Maj will rock up to the All England Club at 11am. She will have an early lunch with – we are led to believe – about 10 current and former champions (and Venus’s name has been mentioned on the invite list) and then she will watch the Muzz play Jarkko Nieminen. Well, hopefully, watch him beat Jarkko Nieminen. And the she will meet the Muzz and have a cup of tea and a bun.

While this meet and greet with Scotland’s finest is going on, someone will be playing on Centre Court. But if that someone were to be Serena, she would be playing in front of an empty Royal Box, and would do so knowing full well that she had been snubbed.

So, instead, Caroline Wozniacki has been selected for snubbing. She is Danish and the Danes have their own royal family. She can play in front of her own royals at home. Come to think of it, Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh – aka Mr Queen, Her Maj’s husband – is related to the Dane’s royal set-up so Wozzy doesn’t really need to meet Liz at all. See – it all comes out in the wash.

So before anyone throws a wobbler, the club is not doing Serena down, they are merely protecting her from an awkward question of etiquette. If she is doing her thing on Court Two while HM is taking tea and biccies with the Muzz, she is not being ignored by Her Maj. She and Queenie can both save face. That is just how we do it in Britain – avoid the difficult situation if you can and if you can’t, simply take over. That’s how we built an empire. Would that the winning the World Cup were that simple.

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