175. Isner & Mahut, five years later

ESPN ran a stellar oral history of the the legendary 11-hour Wimbledon match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut today, on the five-year anniversary of tennis’ longest match ever.

Jelle and I were there.  

We didn’t have plans that day aside from becoming a little too familiar with a few more of London’s bartenders. I’m 19 at this point, literally and figuratively intoxicated with my newly acquired ability to get into bars.


Regrettably, I look like a child. That’s us, to the left, in Hyde Park. Jelle looks like an Eastern European who recently got really into The O.C., and I look like a 15-year-old lesbian. Again, it was regrettable.

If I recall correctly, neither of us even knew Wimbledon was going on that week. A nosy lady with a massive hat told us about it the day I took this selfie of us, and we decided then to trek out and see what we could see.

The line was fantastic, stretching as far as I could see in either direction, and the sun was cooking us as we waiting. We had no cucumber sandwiches, no parasols, no escape from the heat. Sunscreen was going for apocalyptic prices.

We bought general admission tickets, which meant we could only watch the outdoor action. (All of the sport’s big names play in the larger, more accommodating indoor arenas.) That meant instead of Roddick and Rafa we got Melanie Oudin and Kim Clijsters.

At one point, a kind and knowing usher let us sneak a few minutes inside Court 1 to watch Federer’s blowout du jour. I’ve seen Manning in the Super Bowl, Jeter at Yankee Stadium, and LeBron at the Garden, but none of those top seeing Federer at Wimby.

As the day dragged on, we noticed the crowd around Court 18 was growing larger, the oohs and ahhs a little louder. We didn’t really know John Isner or Nicolas Mahut, but being an American, I Googled Isner’s particulars and loudly played the role of lifelong fan.

“Greensboro’s proud of you, John!”

The Brits likely wondered how Isner, a relatively obscure American, had cultivated such a young and passionately vocal lesbian fanbase.

We revisited Court 18 a few different times during the course of the day, our excitement growing each visit. Near the end of the afternoon, every other match had ended, and the entire Wimbledon crowd was jockeying for position around Court 18′s overwhelmed bleachers.

In my memory, it was ace after ace after ace, both of them exhausted, neither relenting. Even in the moment, it was incredible to watch.

We left that day with no sense of the history we had just seen, nor any feeling of closure. We couldn’t afford to go more than one day, so we never saw Isner eventually prevail. By the time the match had ended, we were already back in World Cup mode, bound for Munich and a German watch party.

But as today’s ESPN piece points out, the eventual winner of the match is sort of irrelevant. It was a match that transcended petty competition to become a Moment. A marathon on grass. And it was just another example of how damn lucky I have been to be at the right place at the right time in my life.

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