LONDON – Jimmy Van Alen would not be amused.
Though Jimmy, who used to run the Newport tournament, is no longer with us, his baby is: the tie-breaker (not tiebreak as many incorrectly call it today). Alive and well in a fifth set at the US Open – but not at Wimbledon or the other two major championships, Australian and French.
Thus, when John Isner (US) and Nicolas Mahut (France) set off on their climb through the clouds toward the highest altitude ever in tennis – at two sets all and 6-6 in the 5th – they knew that a 2-game margin was required to win. No matter how long it took. Three days in the Isner-Mahut case while the numbers rolled up as on a gas pump. Up to 183 (games).
In the US their peptic epic couldn’t have occurred. A tie-breaker would have consumed a few minutes. Instead at Wimbledon, inflation set in. It took 8-hours-11 minutes – a working day for most folks – before Isner whacked a backhand passer down the left sideline, and left the ever-hustling Mahut as the loser of this monstrosity.
Unlike golfers, tennis players don’t remember every one of their strokes. But Isner, the former college boy – rare among professionals – will keep that resounding double-handed swat the rest of his life. A keepsake, a glittering mental picture, even if he winds up senile.
Probably Mahut will, too, and anybody else who witnessed it. I hope Nic, a qualifier ranked No. 148, realizes that he meant every bit as much to their drama as Isner. They had gone an unimaginable 7-hours-34 minutes, and 168 games without a break of serve. Mahut even seemed the fresher of the two at the end, still bouncing around the court. He kept serving ace for ace with Isner, always under the intense mental pressure of serving second in order to survive and continue the to be in the match.
However, in the 138th game of the fifth set, Isner made a good low return to set himself up for the kill. He had reached the summit of their climb to the tennis beyond, leaving Mahut merely one devastating swing behind – and in agonizing tears.
For those suffering a numbers hangover from watching this ethereal clash that wandered upward for 11 hours-five minutes, I say sorry. I have to give you the haunting, unapproachable score: 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (7-3), 70-68!
Tie-breaker sire Jimmy Van Alen would have fumed that such a match was “urological torture for spectators, players, the umpire.” Probably right. Pleased that the US stayed with the tie-breaker all the way, Jimmy likely would have declared, “All sets are created equal. It’s the America way. 70-68 looks like a prison number.” (In a way they were imprisoned, looking for a way out.)
It would have been better for Isner, who I felt, was a contender. Drained, he was but a 6-foot-9 inch shadow, never in the second rounder Friday, a 6-0, 6-3, 6-2, loser to No. 49 Thiemo de Bakker from Holland. John, the guy who had pounded a record 113 aces in marching skyward, was limited to zero, the first time in his life. However exhausted, he wasn’t going to quit.
John said he likes 5th set tie-breakers.
Although I feel that all sets should be played under the same rules, this lalapalooza stood alone. Undeniably it had everything – tension, suspense, pressure, brilliant shotmaking, exploration of unprecedented depths and uncharted pinnacles. Incredibly, aces flew like a flock of canaries, Isner winning that race, too, 113-103. Was it a question of the players being inspired or too tired to run after the balls?
Van Alen would have sputtered,
“Too long…way too long!”
As he did in 1954. He was determined to develop scoring that would shorten sets: and matches — eventually the tie-breaker
In the Newport final that year Ham Richardson beat Straight Clark, 6-3, 9-7, 12-14, 6-8, 10-8 in 4 hours, 83 games. Not overly long by today’s standards, but a breaker would have trimmed it considerably.
The worst thing about that Newport match, Jimmy felt, was it intruded on and spoiled the cocktail hour. Neglected champagne was an inspiration. A patrician with patience and perseverance, he tinkered with a few versions until his baby was accepted in the US, and first seen nationally in 1970 on WGBH at Longwood. TV producers and tournament schedule-makers applauded.
The world followed. But the Australians, French and Wimbledonians screamed emphatically, “No tie-breakers in place of a 5th set!” Let it run forever, if needed and it damn near did last week. That’s taking the 5th unadulterated.
Along with smashing every conceivable record, John and Nic, with their 183 games, surpassed the great Pancho Gonzalez’s 112 game masterpiece of 1969. That was a first rounder three years before Wimbledon joined the tie-breaker crowd (for all except the fifth set), and remains perhaps the most compelling of matches at the Big W. Gonzalez came from miles behind, rescuing seven match points in overcoming US Davis Cupper CharliePasarell, 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9, in 5 hours 12 minutes.
Pancho was 41, and in those days, no chairs were on the court. No sit-downs allowed. What a man. Matches kept going – continuously. Pancho’s is the one broken record I’ll miss.
But umpires are traditionally seated. Mohamed Lahyani, in the highchair for the Nic and John show, was admirable. He didn’t miss one of 1960 points (incredibly again, so close, each player had 980 points) or fall asleep.
Probably he and the two guys he monitored should get tattoos: SURVIVED 70-68.
I am glad to have been there.