There are three parts of summer that one simply shouldn’t miss: drinking outside, chatting up girls in bikinis, and grass-court tennis.
Alas, the first two extend throughout the calendar’s warmest time of year, while the third is only a short segment of the season.
So as difficult as it may be, save the pick-up lines, and hold off on acquiring a beer belly for another month because the most magical part of the tennis season is upon us.
Allow me to be the first to welcome you to the peRFect Tennis countdown of the most significant grass-court matches of all-time. As the tennis world counts down the days before Wimbledon, we too will be counting down on some unforgettable matches on the sport’s only living surface. Check back each day for another, take on another special match.
We begin with a few honourable mentions, the first of which is none other than the longest match in the history of tennis.
Was the quality of tennis not actually that great? Yes. Was it the kind of match that could only be possible because John Isner’s serve is as unstoppable as his return game is inept? Of course.
But, was it a true spectacle despite those negatives? Absolutely.
When Isner and Nicolas Mahut first walked on to Court 18 at the All-England Club shortly after 6 p.m. on June 22, 2010, it would have been reasonable to expect that they might not finish the match that night. But if you would have told me that, without the rain being a factor, they would not even have completed the following night, I probably would’ve called you a liar.
And then I would’ve owed you an apology.
After splitting the first two sets, the third and fourth provided a preview of what was to come, as both had to be decided in tiebreakers. The play was suspended before the beginning of the fifth, and Isner and Mahut returned to Court 18 shortly after 2 p.m. the next day.
“Something tells me we could have a long, drawn-out fifth set,” ESPN commentator Brad Gilbert said at the time.
Understatement of the century? Perhaps. At the 6 hour, 34 minute mark, the match eclipsed the previous record for the longest match in history, and after again suspending play due to darkness, Isner finally triumphed the next morning. The final scoreline is the likes of which we will never see again: 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68.
The fifth set alone lasted 8 hours and 11 minutes, long enough to eclipse the previous longest entire tennis match by over an hour and a half. At 47-all in the fifth, the court’s scoreboard stopped working.
Isner and Mahut took tennis talk to worldwide television stations, newspapers, and coffee shop chatter a week and a half before it was supposed to. As an American, I can’t remember the last time that ESPN’s SportsCenter led off with tennis two days in a row without it being about the final of a major, or a match involving Serena Williams or Roger Federer. This was a first-round match between the 23rd seed and a qualifier.
“This is the greatest advertisement for our sport. It makes me proud to be a part of it,” ESPN commentator John McEnroe said. “We often don’t get the respect we deserve in tennis for the athletic demands it places on players, but this should push that respect way up.”
For as mediocre as the actual tennis was, it was more than made up for by the fantastic atmosphere floating around not only Court 18 but also the entire tournament, as players across the All-England club were being asked about the spectacle stretching across days 2 through 4.
“I don’t know what to think of that,” 7-time grand slam champion Venus Williams said. “It’s amazing.”
“It’s so impressive to see. I mean, I was watching this. I don’t know if I was crying or laughing. It was too much,” then 16-time grand slam champion Roger Federer said. “This is amazing.”
The final aspect of Isner-Mahut that made it oh-so-special was the delightful respect and recognition that both players seemed to have for one another. Both the giant American and the spry Frenchman seemed to fully understand what they were taking part in and what they were creating.
“Nothing like this will ever happen again,” Isner said. “Ever.”
At 58 games all, Isner popped a stab volley over the net and into the open court. The American turned and began staggering back towards the baseline to serve the next point, but his head snapped back a moment later. Mahut was tearing back across the lawn after having been pulled well outside the doubles alley. His desperate, racquet-flinging dive wasn’t actually even close to getting under the ball before its second bounce. Still, the heroic effort served almost as a portrait of the match in its entirety: the play wasn’t great, but the moment was still special. Across the net, a stunned Isner simply laughed and applauded.
The next morning, it was Isner who was clapping again. After the American’s backhand pass finally put an end to the epic spectacle, a heartbroken Mahut staggered to his chair. Isner remained standing for a few moments longer, pointing to his distraught opponent and leading the appreciative applause.
Even seven years later, I don’t agree with what the All-England Club did next in forcing the crestfallen Frenchman to remain on the court for a ceremony. Still, I suppose I can understand their motivation behind it.
“This moment is just really painful, but as John said, it was just amazing to play today,” Mahut said. “We played the greatest match ever in the greatest place to play tennis.”
As reliable of an adjective as it might seem to be, “great” is a relative term. Most would probably not agree with Mahut’s appraisal of the contest, but while it may not have been the greatest match ever, it was one of the most memorable.