Locker Room Confessions: Inside the Isner-Mahut Epic
“For a brief period of time, a minute or two, he was talking and it didn’t make sense. It was gibberish. He was so depleted,” Boynton said. “It hit me then how far John dug and how much pain he was able to withstand and how he went far past any limit that I’d ever seen him push past.’”
Isner's first-round Wimbledon match against Nicolas Mahut still wasn't over. They had played for 10 hours across two days — obliterating the previous record for the longest match in tennis history — and somehow, both men had to summon the energy to return to Court 18 the next day.
“I walked through the door and Andy Roddick was flying out. Andy was unbelievable. He was so gracious. He says, ‘CB what do you need? Do you need [physio] Dougie Spreen for the night? Do you need the physio? What do you need? What do you need?’” Boynton said. “At that point I didn’t know. He goes, ‘You need food!’”
Roddick was familiar with long matches at Wimbledon, losing a heartbreaker in the previous year's final 16-14 in the fifth set against Roger Federer. The former World No. 1 had won his second-round match on Centre Court earlier in the day, but in the moment he was concerned with helping Isner and his team. Roddick sent them “10 to 12 bags” of chicken parmigiana, pizza, pasta and more from San Lorenzo’s, an Italian restaurant about a mile away.
Isner needed all the fuel he could get. But as much as his epic against Mahut was a three-day physical battle, it was even moreso a war of wills, in which neither player gave an inch.
“It’s just one of those things when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force,” Boynton said. “It was just one of those crazy matches. Both guys were locked in, both guys were unrelenting and both guys were determined not to be denied.”
* * * * *
When Boynton learned Isner would play Mahut, an aggressive net-storming Frenchman, he wasn’t thrilled. Mahut had made the 2007 Fever-Tree Championships final, narrowly losing against Roddick. Mahut dispatched Isner in straight sets at the same tournament the next year.
“I knew Nico was very dangerous,” Boynton said. “He was not a qualifier in my eyes. He was on a pretty short list of some of the best grass-court players playing.”
Boynton tracked down Roddick to see if the former World No. 1 had any thoughts on the Frenchman’s game. Isner is the rare player who could control his destiny with his booming serve and powerful forehand, but extra insight never hurts.
“The rundown was that you’ve got to watch for his one-hander down the line. If you can get the ball low on his forehand volley, that’s not I would say a weak spot, but it’s definitely not as strong as his backhand volley,” Boynton recalled. “He had a little bit of a reputation of getting tight, [so the message was for us] just to look for that and pick up on that. Boy was I wrong on that one. I couldn’t have been more wrong.”
The match started innocently. Mahut hit three unreturned serves and a cross-court backhand passing shot winner. The Frenchman held at love.
The 23rd-seeded Isner broke once to take the opening set, and Mahut broke in the American’s first service game of the second set, using that to even the match. There would not be a service break for two more days. Isner and Mahut split tie-breaks in the third and fourth sets to force a decider.
When the men departed Court 18 that Tuesday, due to darkness, at two sets apiece after two hours and 54 minutes, it was still an ordinary match. It was an unremarkable day at SW19, with Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray advancing to the second round without difficulty.
In his fourth main draw appearance at The Championships, Michael Russell earned his first win at the historic tournament that day. Part of his post-match routine was heading to the ice baths, where he saw Isner.
“I was thinking he must have finished his match, so I asked, ‘How did it go?’ He said, ‘We didn’t finish,’” Russell recalled. “We chatted a little bit and eventually I just said, ‘Good luck tomorrow, I’ll see you the next day.’ Sure enough, three days later he’s playing the longest match in the history of tennis.”
Boynton knew his charge needed to focus on holding serve on the match’s second day. Eventually, an opportunity would arise. At least that’s what he thought.
The match’s second day lasted longer than any other match in history. For the most part, the holds came quickly. Starting at 4-5, Mahut faced enormous pressure every time he served. If he held, the match continued. If he didn’t, he’d lose.
“Every time I was serving to stay in the match,” Mahut said. “I just tried to win the game, just to win the point I was playing. That's it. Again and again, every time [it was] the same.”
Mahut saved his first match point at 9-10 with an ace down the T, then two more at 32-33 with a forehand volley and then a booming serve out wide. The score kept ticking until the scoreboard stopped properly functioning at 47-47.
“It was almost an out-of-body experience. It was going so fast, but it wasn’t going anywhere at all,” Boynton said. “It is really difficult for me to describe because it was almost like something you’d see in The Twilight Zone. I can vividly remember just going, ‘This is bizarre. This is really bizarre.’”
As the match went on, Russell returned to the site for practice. The American said that in the locker room, there is an electronic schedule that shows the order of play “like a bingo screen”.
“I remember being in the locker room and I remember all the matches to follow, they just kept getting moved off the schedule,” Russell said. “Under John’s match, it just kept popping up with a black square, black square, black square, with all the emptiness of matches that had to be moved. He was second on that day.”
It was clear that this was no longer an ordinary first-round match. Rodney Marshall, a USTA strength and conditioning coach working with Isner, was at Wimbledon for the first time. The scene was something he’ll never forget.
“It was a surreal feeling looking up and seeing the commentating tower above us packed with people everywhere. When the match first started there were just a few people on Court 18 and by the time it was done there was a sea of people,” Marshall said. “I had friends from middle school text me during that match. The whole world was watching.”
Boynton knew that by the time they got into the 30s, it was becoming increasingly unlikely his charge would break. The 6’10” Isner was beyond tired.
“I was really, really concerned for John’s mother. I can see the concern as the games started mounting up and seeing how depleted John was getting; it was getting to the point where he had no gas and he was still going,” Boynton said. “It was a mother’s love. I really felt for her at that moment, all the way through.”
Somehow, as darkness descended on the London grass, Isner earned a fourth match point at 59-58. Mahut’s response? His 95th ace. At 59-59, play was called for the evening after seven hours and six minutes of fifth-set action.
“We’re just fighting like we never did before,” Mahut said in an on-court interview before they left the court. “Someone has to win.”
“A memory I have is just coming back into the seeded locker room and seeing all the players huddled around watching the match on the TV when we got back, including Roger. They were all like, ‘What is this?’” Marshall recalled. “It was a surreal moment. Everyone was just mesmerised by it thinking, ‘This is just unreal.’ Everyone was into it, from the locker room to the entire world.”
That was when Roddick got involved. The American knew recovery was vital to Isner's chances the next day.
“He just said, ‘Make sure John eats. When he wakes up at 3 a.m., make sure he eats. Just have him eat, eat, eat,’” Boynton said. “That was a huge part of getting John up and running the next day, getting the nutrients in him. I’ll always be thankful to Andy for doing that.”
Marshall says they spent two to three hours on site after the match trying to get Isner ready for the next day. Marshall had friends ask if Isner needed an I.V., but he didn’t believe fluid replenishment was an issue. Isner spent most of his time in the ice baths or on the massage table.
“His toes were bad. They were taping them up and trying to do the best job they could, but he went through several pairs of shoes,” Marshall said. “He was bleeding. It was bad, just really blistered.”
“His toes were just torched,” Roddick said the day after the match ended. “They looked like deli meat. They're disgusting.”
Isner’s team departed the grounds that night when the locker room attendants left. They got back to their flat near 1 a.m.
“We popped on our computers just to do what we do, check out ESPN, check things out, and just kind of wind down from the crazy day,” Boynton said. “You couldn’t hit a sports or even news website with this match being all over. I was like, ‘You guys are rockstars now. You’re everywhere!”
Russell played his second-round match — a five-setter against Fabio Fognini — on nearby Court 17. Although he was focussed on his match, it was impossible not to hear the commotion as Isner and Mahut played the third day of their match on Court 18.
“We knew that match was special, so there’s that little voice in the back of your mind when you hear a loud eruption: ‘I wonder if John broke serve, or I wonder if Mahut broke serve?’” Russell said. “You knew history was being made with a three-day match, which is just insane. It was crazy.”
Finally, after a record 11 hours and five minutes, the match came to an end. In the ad court, Isner returned the ball low, and Mahut floated the ball back, giving Isner time to set his feet in the perfect position. Isner took his time, forcing Mahut to guess, and the American laced a backhand passing shot down the line for a winner. He flopped onto his back in celebration before rising to hug Mahut at the net.
Isner clinched the longest match in history at 4:47 p.m. on 24 June, 67 minutes into that day’s play. He won 6-4, 3-6, 6-7(7), 7-6(3), 70-68. The tournament held a ceremony on court after the match.
“[I’m] a little bit tired,” Isner said in front of the crowd. “But when you come out and play a match like this in an atmosphere like this, you don’t feel tired.”
“I got into the locker room and John and I have a pretty good relationship, so I tapped him on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, great job. But my God, we need to work on your celebration. That was the worst celebration,’” Boynton joked to add levity to the moment. “We were serious, but we were also real with each other. I gave him a pass. He got a mulligan.
“After that he was in the locker room talking to some guys about a fantasy mock draft he had coming up. He was talking about who he was going to draft in his fantasy leagues!”
Few remember that Mahut returned to the same court later that evening for a doubles match with countryman Arnaud Clement against Brits Colin Fleming and Ken Skupski. Skupski remembers seeing a light shining above the court — Isner was doing a television interview.
“I felt that must have been hard for Nico to see,” Skupksi said. “John wasn’t quiet, either.”
They only played one set, and Mahut had to return to Court 18 for a fourth day, losing that doubles match in four sets, regardless of how physically tired he was.
“Considering that and the mental stress of it, his ability to come back and play what seemed to be normal [tennis] was extremely impressive,” Skupski said. “Once the come down from a long match happens you don’t particularly want to go back on court, especially losing such an epic.”
Isner woke up the next morning and everything hurt. The worst pain came from a kink in his neck that didn’t allow him to look up at his service toss. His warm-up for the match was laying on the treatment table. Thiemo de Bakker dismissed Isner in 74 minutes.
“You can’t come back from that,” Marshall said. “I don’t care how good of shape you’re in.”
* * * * *
There was no trophy at stake in this legendary encounter. In reality, Isner and Mahut played for the right to lose in the second round. But it wasn’t about the 216 combined aces they hit or the 168 straight service games they held. It was proving that something that never had been done and never will be done again was possible.
“He went to a place, and I’d imagine Nico went to a place, where I’d think the military goes in training,” Boynton said. “They just kept on breaking through barriers inside their minds. It was amazing to see. It was like you watch the Rocky movies. These guys did that in multiple-fold.”
Countless people throughout the world were on the edge of their seats. As much as they wanted to know who would win, they really wanted to know how far Isner and Mahut could push the boundaries.
“You weren’t rooting for anybody to lose, you were rooting for tennis just to have such an incredible match,” Russell said. “It got a lot of people talking about our sport who weren’t interested in tennis before. I thought it was a huge stepping stone for the sport of tennis.”
Isner and Mahut will always be remembered for those three unforgettable days on Court 18. But they’ve both gone on to enjoy great success outside of the classic. Isner has won 15 ATP Tour titles and finished inside the year-end Top 20 in the FedEx ATP Rankings in each of the past 10 years. Mahut has reached doubles World No. 1 and won all four Grand Slams in doubles.
Isner has said that before the match, the extent of their interactions was a subtle head-nod in the hallway. Now, they are close friends.
“Obviously we have so much respect for each other after playing that,” Isner said. “I'm sure we'll eventually sit down and laugh about it.”