Isner-Mahut: Now You Can Re-live Tennis’s Longest Match

WASHINGTON, April 5, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

Damian Kust is an American Studies major at the University of Gdańsk in Poland and writes for the Last Word on Tennis website. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Kust no longer attends his university classes in person and, instead, has shifted his focus to online learning from home.

Like many, Kust has had a lot of time on his hands and with no live tennis to watch or write about, recently, he took on the Herculean task of watching all 11 hours and 5 minutes of the epic 2010 Wimbledon battle between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut – from start to finish in one sitting. The Wimbledon YouTube channel premiered the the entire match on March 26 and, so far, it’s received more than 116,000 views.

Many tennis fans remember watching some – but likely not all – of Isner-Mahut, right? Here’s a quick primer:

No. 23 seed John Isner of the United States and French qualifier Nicolas Mahut began their first-round Wimbledon match on Tuesday, June 22, 2010 on Court 18. The match started at 6:13 p.m. BST and at 9:07 p.m., because of fading light, play was suspended before the beginning of the fifth set. After play resumed the next afternoon at 2:05 p.m., the record for the longest match was broken at 5:45 p.m. With light fading again, play was suspended at 9:09 p.m. with the final set tied at 59 games all. Isner and Mahut resumed their match at 3:40 p.m. on Thursday and Isner finally won at 4:47 p.m., the final set having lasted eight hours and 11 minutes alone. Final score: Isner defeated Mahut, 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68.

Isner and Mahut played for 11 hours and 5 minutes and their match covered a total of 183 games and 980 points. Each player served more than 100 aces and both hit more than 200 winners. It remains the longest match in tennis history, measured both by time and the number of games. The final set, alone, lasted longer than the previous longest match.

“My first thought when I saw that Wimbledon had uploaded the whole video was that I have to watch it,” Kust said during a recent email interview. “While many people seem to have a very strong opinion on the quality of this (match), I think the number of these who watch it in full is very small.

“While the lack of rallies might be frustrating, it’s still a huge piece of tennis history, and having previously seen just one point from that game (Isner’s converted match point), I figured as an aspiring tennis writer, I should probably get a better grip of this classic. Doing it as a sort of challenge gave me the motivation to do it.”

Kust stayed awake and saw all 980 points, some more memorable than others. Asked what some of his takeaways after watching the entire Isner-Mahut match, Kust said: “Game-wise, it was exactly as you’d expect, lots of big serves and missed returns. I was 11 when the match was played and I was yet to catch the tennis bug. What I had in mind throughout was that I wished I had been around to follow it live, maybe not necessarily in London but on TV or on a stream. 

“The tension had to be amazing and all the record-breaking was surely thrilling when you had no way of knowing the score yet. What was mentioned many times in the broadcast, too, was that it was probably the only time when all the eyes at Wimbledon were turned to Court 18 and not one of the show courts. Even the public on the Henman Hill watched a Hugh part of that deciding set.”

Watching one match for 11 straight hours: difficult

When Kust was asked if watching Isner-Mahut from start to finish in one sitting was easier or more difficult than he thought it might be, he didn’t hesitate with his response, saying it was “probably more difficult than I expected. I think it’s really hard to wrap your head around how long an eight-hour set really is. I’m not sure if I would have made it through if it wasn’t for the whole lockdown situation and a general lack of things to do.

“These 11 hours had my level of motivation fluctuate wildly and I think the fifth set was the toughest as not being divided into parts made it much more tiring mentally. Commentary on the broadcast helped a lot and tweeting about it from time to time gave me some fine moments of relaxation, too.”

What would Kust recommend to any tennis fan thinking of watching the entire Isner-Mahut classic? “If you like challenging yourself, go for it – especially now that all of us have slightly more spare time,” he said. “But if you just want to remind yourself of this iconic game or simply get a little bit familiar with this big piece of tennis history, you should probably watch the most important moments only.”