Nicholas Mahut and John Isner

Posted on June 23, 2010

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This was Herculean.

Sport suffers badly at the hands of hyperbole: the average becomes excellent and the indifferent is engaging. We go through it every time the England football team take to the pitch; when our rugby team underperform heads are called for and answers demanded. It’s a world where our natural leaning is towards the excessive – we’re keen to make heroes out of ordinary men, and we’re willing to knock them down.

It’s not hyperbole, however, to say that the Wimbledon match between Nicholas Mahut and John Isner is Herculean. Sometimes hyperbole captures the moment correctly – a precious few times, and when it does it’s often tarnished by the law of diminishing returns – but sometimes it does.

The longest match in tennis history (10 hours and still going – they begin again tomorrow); the highest number of aces; the highest number of games; the longest set – the records have fallen, have been rewritten, then scrapped and rewritten again. What you have is that pure moment which rarely occurs in sport, but is often said to by those wanting to overstate their love of it: two men in a totally dogged fight against each other.

By the end of play today there wasn’t much skill involved. Rather, as is so often referred to in a cliche manner but here has actual resonance, it was a battle of attrition. John Isner might not actually make it to court tomorrow: he wandered back to the dressing room in a daze as the flashbulbs went off around him.

The only other event which personally holds the same romanticism for me is the breaking of the World 100m sprint record. In that, it’s the same idea: several men pitted against each other, with no extenuating circumstances, in order to see who can run faster than any man has ever run before. It’s an indication of how we’re bettering ourselves as humans; about how we’ve reached the final point of tuning – have pressed the body to the absolute limit of its craft, and can go no further. And this marathon match has that same feeling of testing the limits.

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