Thursday, June 24, 2010

Marathon on Court 18

John Isner didn’t sign up to be a marathoner. As far as tennis goes, however, he ran one… in fact, he ran a few. On Thursday, June 24, 2010, Isner won his match against Frenchman Nicolas Mahut on the third day of match play (sunset on each of the first two days warranted a suspension of play). Adding together the time spent playing over the course of the three days, the match clocked in at an inconceivable 11 hours, 5 minutes. Needless to say, this match was officially logged as the longest played – ever. In fact, the fifth set alone (which ended up being 70-68 games) was longer than any other tournament match in the history of professional tennis. Although the dysfunctional nature of this match does wonders for the coverage of this year’s Wimbledon, I find it rather special for another reason.

John Isner isn’t as good at tennis as Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, and I doubt he ever will be. If you think me rather cruel and cynical about a young adult relatively new to professional tennis, I suspect you would (after some prodding) get the same response from Isner himself. Currently ranked 19th on the Men’s ATP rankings board, Isner is practically a no-name to television audiences. Truthfully, the only real standout qualities he possesses are that he is an American, and that he is, for tennis standards, freakishly tall. Standing alone, Isner’s skills as a tennis player are hardly enough to propel him into the sport’s royalty, or garner consideration from the shortsighted American sports-viewing public.

However, on this day, John Isner is a star. Although he surprised many with his remarkable endurance through match play, he impressed me by what he did when he wasn’t smashing forehand winners. The interviews I saw featuring Isner on court and post-match were fantastic. When probed with questions from reporters on scene (some valid, others absurd), Isner demonstrated a mixture of timidity and poise. This combination, I feel, is extremely appropriate for a young man relatively unacquainted with such attention. A week ago, not even Isner’s 6’9” build could be seen behind the daunting shadows of men like Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic. Today, the spotlight was on Isner, and he flourished under the circumstance. He responded to questions in a surprisingly candid manner. He was refreshingly honest, and demonstrated a sincerely humorous bewilderment for the situation in which found himself.

The question being asked to and by sports media talking heads today is whether or not this tennis match, though memorable, should be considered “good” tennis. My personal response to this question is quite similar to that of Tim Cowlishaw of the Dallas Morning Star News. This match was much better for the game of tennis than it was great tennis play. Towards the end of day 2 (a phrase which still seems strange when discussing tennis), neither of the two men could hardly stand, let alone provide the type of tennis play ordinarily necessary to keep viewers tuned in. If you ask me, the length of play was the only element that sparked any interest. The notion that this historic match wasn’t the best tennis ever played in no way takes away from its grandeur. Frankly, I consider witnessing events like this to be one of the very finest and exciting things in sports, especially as a fan.

I heard it said today that this match shall be remembered for its length, and nothing more. In all honesty, a statement such as “Remember that match that went for like 11 hours? Who played that, again?” doesn’t seem far-fetched. Today, however, I like to think that this match did something greater than put the sport of tennis on the map for a day or two. I like to think that this tennis match gave two respectful, eloquent young men the chances to demonstrate their gracious attitudes for large audiences. I like to think that sports players and fans alike can look at this match and derive a lesson in sportsmanship and goodwill. I like to think that a 6’9” tennis player was transformed into a role model, who happens to swing a racket.

© 2010 Brent Bracamontes

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