A match for the ages

Published 2:46 pm Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Sometimes you just know you are watching history.

Ernest walked into my office last Wednesday afternoon and told me to turn on the television. The Wimbledon tennis tournament was on from England. The match between John Isner and Nicholas Mahut was in the fifth set, tied at 41 to 41. Instantly I knew this wasn’t just a regular match.

Let me back up and say that Ernest as well as all the Georgia Bulldog fans everywhere have some ties to John Isner. He is one of the greatest collegiate players of all time and excelled in a program that remains near the top of the NCAA rankings year after year. He was an All-American for four straight years at the University of Georgia.

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Isner first reached the NCAA doubles finals in his freshman year. His partner was another Georgia standout, Bo Hodge. Bo’s dad, Mark, was Ernest’s roommate at Georgia and a star player on their football team. Their families have remained close all these many years

Isner tailgates with Ernest’s crowd, along with other tennis standouts that I have gotten to meet along the way. He is also a regular at their Georgia-Florida tailgate party, which can only be called an excellent time, even for an Auburn fan.

So it was with that added sense of excitement that we began to watch what would become the tennis marathon match of all time. Along the way, record after record would fall as two young men who had never won a match at Wimbledon would play their way into the record books.

You don’t have to be a tennis fan or even a sports fan to recognize the extraordinary efforts that occasionally come along that will forever stand the test of time. The drive for excellence, the refusal to concede defeat, the triumph of heart over body, and the display of courage and sportsmanship no matter the outcome are things that we all aspire to achieve.

Sports give us the opportunity to observe all these things come together at one time. When that happens you will always remember how it felt to observe something so special.

The match continued until the networks had to change to other programming. I went home where our satellite picked up the secondary network for Wimbledon. Ernest managed to watch the rest of the match that day on the Internet.

Only the match would not be finished that day. We kept watching as the court became darker and darker as the end of the day approached. Wimbledon doesn’t have artificial lighting, so games must be suspended when it becomes too dark to see. Amazingly, the match continued until at 59-59; the game was called for the second straight day due to failing light.

Mary Lou, long a tennis fanatic and especially loyal to Wimbledon, delayed a trip to Savannah and Charleston for three and a half hours, refusing to leave before the match was decided.

Wimbledon alone, among the major tennis tournaments, does not allow for a tiebreaker in the fifth set. As the match continued the next day you began to hear about it at the coffee shop and along the street. People who have never mentioned tennis to me asked if I had been watching it.

For the third day, Isner and Mahut battled, extending the match another incredible 20 games before finally Isner emerged the victor with an inconceivable score in the fifth set of 70-68. Realizing themselves that this was indeed history, the Wimbledon Tennis Club awarded prizes to both Isner and Mahut along with the referee that had endured so many hours in the chair.

With grace and dignity, they complimented each other.

They exemplified the best of sportsmanship.

Their bodies completely worn out, they realized their role in something historic and were grateful just to have been able to participate.

Twenty-four hours later, they had both lost; Isner in the next round and Mahut in the doubles round. Their losses were not surprising given the marathon efforts they had just given. Even the first appearance at Wimbledon by the Queen in 33 years could not command the attention the efforts of these two young men brought on themselves from around the world.

To put it in perspective, it was the longest tennis match in history.

Indeed, the epic fifth set was longer than any other previous tennis match in history. Mahut, who lost the match, broke the record for the most aces ever served in a match with 103. Unfortunately for him, Isner, the victor, served 112 aces.

For those that aren’t tennis fans, I am sure that it is hard to understand just how incredible this match was. It won’t happen ever again just as some of the classic sports moments of the past will forever remain in the record books.

A lifelong fan of Lou Gehrig, I count his speech as the luckiest man alive as he retired from baseball with the disease named for him after playing 2,130 consecutive games as one of the greatest moments in sports.

I still tingle with chills when I hear Al Michaels voice shouting, “Do you believe in miracles?” as the United States hockey team won the gold medal in 1980 against the heavily favored Soviet Union. I watched the game and knew it was history.

John Isner and Nicolas Mahut together participated in an event they will always be remembered for in the tennis and sporting world. They made history and in doing so both became champions. I am just glad that I got to watch it.