LONDON (Reuters) - “Nothing like this will ever happen again - ever,” panted John Isner after he and Nicolas Mahut rewrote every record in the book with a 10-hour epic at Wimbledon that left even Roger Federer agog with admiration.
In the most mind-boggling encounter ever witnessed on a tennis court, or maybe even in the sporting world, Isner and Mahut sent statisticians scrambling and caused the scoreboard to malfunction as they fought toe-to-toe for 10 hours in the longest ever tennis match.
Incredibly as the sun set over Court 18, they staggered out of the All England Club at 2110 local time with their first-round match still undecided and the fifth set locked at 59-all.
The battle started on Tuesday, lasted all day Wednesday, will hopefully conclude on Thursday and will live long in the memory of those lucky enough to witness the freak, surreal stalemate.
“Seriously... doesn’t anyone have to pee? Umpires included?” Andy Roddick Tweeted as he watched the final set drag on for seven hours and six minutes.
The fifth set alone eclipsed the record for the longest ever completed match at six hours and 33 minutes.
It was meant to be a day when Federer, who had a narrow escape in the first round, was supposed to prove that he is still the undisputed king of Wimbledon, but again he failed to convince.
He huffed and puffed his way into the third round by beating a challenger who goes by the nickname of ‘Bozo’.
Qualifier Ilija Bozoljac is more well known in Serbia for his exploits in reality show Big Brother than his tennis prowess but he once again raised question marks about Federer’s chances of landing a record equalling seventh men’s crown before slipping to a 6-3 6-7 6-4 7-6 defeat.
With England brought to a standstill as the nation beat Slovenia to reach the knockout stages of the World Cup in South Africa, Roddick playfully kicked a ball into the delighted Centre Court crowd after a 4-6 6-4 6-1 7-6 win over in-form Frenchman Michael Llodra.
Fellow American Venus Williams joined him round three after blasting Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova into orbit 6-0 6-4.
Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin and third seed Novak Djokovic all stifled their opponents in double quick time and former champion Lleyton Hewitt chalked up a century of grasscourt wins after Evgeny Korolev retired with a shoulder injury.
Amid the clamour of the Court 18 epic, it went almost unnoticed that Russian seventh seed Nikolay Davydenko went out in four sets to German Daniel Brands.
Federer, Roddick, Williams, Henin, Clijsters, Hewitt and Djokovic own 36 singles grand slam trophies between them but their exploits on Day Three of the grasscourt championships were eclipsed by two gunslingers battling it out on a court that seats only 782 fans.
“I love this. I know they’re maybe not loving this, but I guess this is unheard of in our game,” said Federer, who had began his match when Isner and Mahut were tied at 11-all in the fifth set and still found the two at it when he walked off Court One almost three hours later.
“John is barely moving anymore but he’s still able to produce good serves when he has to. It’s so impressive to see. I was watching this. I don’t know if I was crying or laughing. It was too much.”
It certainly was no laughing matter for the two protagonists who simply could not find a way to send their opponent home. In fact, Isner could have flown home to Florida in the time it took them to contest the 118 games so far in the final set.
As a sea of fans, officials and fellow players crammed in and jostled for position on the terrace overlooking Court 18 -- even the courtside scoreboard could not keep up with Mahut and Isner’s antics as it got stuck with the score at 47-47.
A printed piece of paper will show that Isner belted down a record 98 aces, and counting, as both players eclipsed the previous record of 78 by Ivo Karlovic.
But those numbers will do little to underline the sheer guts, steely determination and human spirit shown by both.
As darkness descended over southwest London, and the score stood at 58-all, Mahut’s racket went flying out of his hand when he dived after an Isner volley and ended up getting up close and personal with the grass as he lay sprawled face down on the ground.
Even a weary Isner, who looked as if he could barely put one foot in front of the other in between points, mustered the energy to applaud Mahut’s effort.
Seconds later Isner was gift-wrapped a fourth match point at 59-58 when Mahut double faulted. But for those who thought the end was in sight, it proved to be a false dawn as the Frenchman fired down his 95th ace.
Having ensured he had stretched the match into a third day -- it had been suspended at two sets apiece on Tuesday -- Mahut went up to the umpire and said enough was enough.
The fans were eager to see more but their chants of “We want more, we want more” were ignored as the supervisor stepped on court and signalled with his hands that it was over for the day.
After walking off court to a standing ovation, Mahut promised: “Someone has to win so we’ll come back tomorrow and see who’s going to win the match.
“Everyone wants to see the end but they’ll just have to come back tomorrow.”
(Editing by Miles Evans)