Marathon match unites players
John Isner of the US reacts as he defeats France's Nicolas Mahut, in their epic men's singles match at Wimbledon. (AP)
Wimbledon - When it was finally over -- after five sets, 183 games and more than 11 hours of play over three days -- John Isner collapsed on his back on the grass as if he had just won the Wimbledon title.
It was only a first-round match, but an epic one that will endure in the rich lore of Wimbledon and the history of the sport.
"We played the greatest match ever in the greatest place to play tennis," said Isner's vanquished opponent, Nicolas Mahut.
The final set ended at 70-68 when Isner cracked a backhand passing shot down the line on the 980th point of the match. After rolling on the turf, the American pulled Mahut into a hug at the net.
"It stinks someone had to lose," Isner said. "But to be able to share this day with him was an absolute honor."
The two men stayed on court for special commemorations and posed for photographs next to the scoreboard and its stunning numbers: 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68.
The records were mind-boggling:
Longest match: 11 hours, 5 minutes
Longest set: 8 hours, 11 minutes
Most games in a match: 183
Most games in a set: 138
Most aces: 215 (Isner 112, Mahut 103)
Most consecutive service games held: 168 (84 each)
The drama of the match, which started on Tuesday and was suspended by darkness over two nights, overshadowed another historic occasion at the All England Club.
Queen Elizabeth II visited Wimbledon for the first time in 33 years, but stayed for only one match, sitting in the Royal Box to watch Britain's Andy Murray win his second-round match in straight sets over Jarkko Nieminen.
The queen did not see top-ranked players Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams win their matches.
Hours after the queen left the grounds, Nadal took Centre Court. He fell behind two sets to one before rallying to beat Robin Haase 5-7, 6-2, 3-6, 6-0, 6-3, winning all 20 service points in the final set.
Nadal had been invited to meet the queen with other players earlier in the day, but defended his decision to practice for his match instead.
"I am playing in Wimbledon. It's not a joke. I love this tournament," Nadal said. "I have a lot of respect for the queen. I have a lot of respect for this tournament. Today is a match day for me, no? So I have my things to do."
Serena Williams did meet the queen and was slightly disappointed by the curtsey she had been practicing for days.
"I couldn't get as low as I wanted to," she said.
Williams then went out and beat Anna Chakvetadze 6-0, 6-1 in 48 minutes, but wasn't happy the match was put on Court 2 instead of Centre Court in recognition of her status as defending champion and three-time winner.
"I don't think I should be out there," Williams said.
The Queen clapped politely at the end of Murray's victory, while Murray and Nieminen bowed in synchronized fashion coming on and off the court. But it was over on cozy Court 18 where the real buzz was taking place.
The battle continues
Picking up where they left off Wednesday at 59-59, Isner and Mahut kept hitting aces and big winners and holding serve. Spectators began wondering whether the players might eventually get to 100 games apiece.
Then, with Isner up 69-68, Mahut missed a drop shot to fall behind. The 6-foot-9 (2.06 m) Isner hit a winner to reach break point and his fifth match point of the marathon contest.
When he saw the ball come up short, he moved in for the final winner and hit it cleanly.
"I told myself just to go for it," he said. "I don't want to lose that point playing the wrong way."
Isner said he felt "completely delirious" by the end of play on Wednesday night, and slept only a few hours. At one point, he wondered whether Wimbledon should institute a tiebreaker in the fifth set, but believes the system should stay as it is.
"It won't happen again," he said. "Not even come close. I think just keep it the same."
Isner and Mahut, hardly household names before the match, will now be linked forever in the annals of the game.
"I don't think I've ever said five words to the guy prior to our match," Isner said. "Not that he's a bad guy. It is what it is. Now when I do see him in the locker room at other tournaments, we'll always be able to share that."
It was only Isner's second career match at Wimbledon. He lost in the first round in 2008, with his best Grand Slam result a fourth-round appearance at last year's U.S. Open.
"This one's obviously going to stick with me probably the rest of my life really," Isner said. "But I hope it doesn't define my career. I think I have what it takes to do some really big things in this game.
"I have probably a good seven, eight years, left to try to make a good run at the Grand Slams. Hopefully this won't be the thing that I'm most remembered about."
Isner won't have much time to rest or reflect: He was due back on Friday to play the first match on Court 5 against Thiemo De Bakker of the Netherlands.