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TENNIS / WIMBLEDON

Wimbledon match's enduring legacy will be its length

John Isner and Nicolas Mahut's 10 hours of tennis and counting will be remembered, and both players should be commended for their perseverance.

June 23, 2010|By Diane Pucin

Reporting from Wimbledon, England — Some day, here's what we'll remember from the first-round Wimbledon match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut.

Boy, did that last a long time.

It's been 10 hours of tennis played so far between the two and it's been paused for a second night with the score tied, 59-59, in the fifth set ,and there hasn't been a single indelible point played.

It is the sum of what's happened, and what has happened has taken place over 10 tennis hours and two days. It's not the piece work that's been done that will make us remember this match for a very long time. It is the entirety.

It's been inelegant tennis played between Isner, a 25-year-old who went to University of Georgia, lives in Tampa, Fla., and is seeded 23rd, and Mahut, a 28-year-old from France who had to win three qualifying matches just to make the main draw because he is only ranked 148th in the world.

But perseverance counts for something, and on a day here when officials closed the blinds of the press center so that ticket-holders wouldn't congregate in the hallway trying to watch a soccer match on little press desk televisions, the stands on Court 18 were still packed at dark. The crowd was there to see whether Isner would topple over, whether Mahut would have a hair ruffled.

Neither happened, and come Thursday, when presumably one of these men will advance to the second round, both should consider themselves winners.

Isner has the body language of a disgruntled teenager who doesn't want to finish his homework. Last year at the U.S. Open, he upset sentimental favorite Andy Roddick in the fourth round, then, as the last American in the men's draw, lost to Fernando Verdasco and proclaimed he'd rather stay home and watch college football on television than head to Asia and try to raise his computer ranking.

That attitude is not what has marked America's greatest recent tennis champions — Jimmy Connors and his rev-up-the-crowd crotch grabs and John McEnroe's eye-popping temper tantrums, Andre Agassi playing until he couldn't stand up straight because of his aching back, even laconic Pete Sampras who once vomited during a U.S. Open match and still won. These champions all gave it everything they had.

Now we know that Isner can too.

McEnroe, doing commentary here for the BBC, wondered several times how it was Isner kept coming out for the next game, so weary did the American seem. Sometimes Isner chose to not chase a Mahut shot. That wasn't evidence of a quitter. It just gave Isner a chance to catch his breath.

Court 18 was where the drama was taking place and it officially seats 782 people. As Venus Williams said, she pitied those fans who felt an urgent need to take a break. "I don't think I'd move," Williams said. "I think if you moved you lose your seat."

She was right. The line to get in to the place probably contained more people than the court held.

It is too bad that the finish will take place in the same small arena. Some suggested Isner and Mahut be given the honor of finishing on Centre Court, where it happens the Queen of England is scheduled to make her first appearance since 1977.

But mostly in these major tennis tournaments, where you start is where you must finish. At least physically.

Mentally, that's a little different. If Isner started this match at all uncertain about his fighting spirit, no matter how Thursday ends, he should have discovered what the rest of us have.

He is no quitter. It was Mahut who asked for play to halt Wednesday. And if the Queen were so inclined, maybe she could stop by Court 18 on Thursday. They might save a seat for her.

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin

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