Nicolas Mahut keeps a purple-and-yellow Wimbledon towel tucked away in a bathroom drawer at his home in France, a keepsake from the longest match in tennis history. Mahut occasionally steals a glance at the memento; he says he never touches it.
There’s another towel — also from that 11-hour, 5-set marathon spread over three days at the All England Club last June — that Mahut tosses into his gym bag when he’s heading for what he figures will be a particularly tough workout or practice.
Yes, the man who lost the 70-68 fifth set that captured the world’s attention is now fairly comfortable reminiscing about and, indeed, drawing inspiration from the whole ordeal. Already wrote a book about it, even.
“I think about it in tough moments, when I lose matches or when I don’t feel so good,” the 29-year-old Mahut said. “I try to remember those moments so that I can feel stronger.”
He called that match “the greatest moment of my life as a tennis player — and, for sure, as a person.”
And the man who won that remarkable match, John Isner? He didn’t set aside any sort of souvenir to help take him back to an adventure that is certain to be discussed and deconstructed whenever Isner (IZH-ner) or Mahut (ma-HU) is mentioned at Wimbledon, where play in this year’s tournament begins next Monday.
“The stuff that I was wearing that day was all given away and went to either a Hall of Fame or charity or whatnot,” said Isner, a 26-year-old based in Tampa, Fla., “so I, myself, don’t have anything from the match.”
Recalling the set of commemorative wine glasses he was given by the All England Club in 2010, Isner said he passed those along to his mother, explaining: “I figured she’d put those to better use than me, because I don’t really drink wine.”
Truth is, Isner is eager to be associated with something other than that first-round Wimbledon match that dragged on and on and on — until, finally, it ended with the official score of 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68. It began on June 22 and finished on June 24, twice suspended because of darkness.
No other match had lasted longer than 6 hours, 33 minutes, a time Isner and Mahut surpassed by more than 4½ hours. No other match had lasted more than 112 games; they played 183. The fifth set alone lasted 138 games over 8 hours, 11 minutes.
“When it’s all said and done with my career, maybe that Wimbledon match (will be) No. 2 on my achievements,” said Isner, who led Georgia to the 2007 NCAA team championship. “It’s tough for me to make that happen — and I know that I can.”
From the sound of it, the 6-foot-9, big-serving Isner thinks of his victory over Mahut not so much as a landmark achievement (one that’s noted by a plaque hanging on a wall at its site, Court 18) or a triumph of will, but rather as a first-round win at a tournament that lasts seven rounds.
And, as it happened, a first-round win that left him in no position to compete in the second round; not surprisingly, Isner was barely able to move and lost in straight sets.
“He won that battle; he lost the war, because he had nothing to give in the next match. You don’t want to be known for a first-round win. You want to be known for a final. He has that capability, if he puts the pieces of his game together,” U.S. Davis Cup captain Jim Courier said. “But that one set him back in a lot of ways, because I think it also distracted him for a little while afterwards.”
While Mahut is willing as can be to discuss The Match That Would Not End — after agreeing to a 10-minute interview with The Associated Press during the French Open, he kept talking for several more minutes — Isner is less apt to bring it up.
The two players barely knew each other before their record-setting encounter made them friends for life. Now, even though they talk or exchange text messages two or three times a week, there’s one topic Isner and Mahut haven’t discussed. Ever.
“The match has not come up,” Isner said. “We’ve talked about everything but the match.”
Said Mahut: “I think one day we’ll do it. ... I’d like to know what he felt, whether he was afraid. I think that a time will come when I’ll need to talk to him about the match.”
Isner’s coach, Craig Boynton, said that even they haven’t spent much time talking about that topic. It only came up once, and briefly at that, over breakfast at the U.S. Open in September.
“I wasn’t going to really ever bring it up,” Boynton said. “It kind of happened naturally. And we talked about it for four or five minutes. And at the end of it, we looked at each other, like, ‘Wow. That’s the first time we ever really talked about it.’ I remember going, ‘Wow. That was kind of cool.’”
Boynton says that returning to Wimbledon will require Isner to strike the proper balance between being willing to think back to what happened in 2010 and moving forward in 2011.
“Ten, 15, ‘X’ years after John retires, he’s going to look back and say, ‘That was pretty cool what I did. That was pretty neat. Me and Nicolas are in the record books for this.’ But up until that time that he hangs ‘em up, he’s going forward, and rightly so,” Boynton said. “He wants to be in the second week of a Slam. He wants to be (ranked in the) top 10. He wants all these things that will solidify him as a relevant player.”
Isner’s best ranking so far was 18th, and he has yet to make it past the fourth round at a Grand Slam tournament. He’s won one ATP tournament.
He nearly produced the most significant result of his career last month at the French Open, though, by taking a 2-1 lead in sets against Rafael Nadal in the first round. Isner wasn’t able to hold on, instead settling for becoming the only player to force six-time champion Nadal to five sets in 46 career matches at Roland Garros.
Mahut never has been past the third round at any major tournament. He’s never won a tour-level singles title.
Ah, but he’ll always have that record-breaking match against Isner.
And that’s enough for him.
“I know that if I want people to talk about me for some other reason,” Mahut said, “I’d have to win a Grand Slam title, which is tough.”
Then he smiled and added: “Maybe in 10 or 20 years, people won’t remember which one of us won that match.”