I generally make a point of ensuring that the articles we post here don’t stray too far into the realm of the personal, so forgive me for straying out of line, but I’ve found a weird personal resonance in today’s action at Wimbledon.
You see, this morning I was woken up by the combined noise of a dog and a seagull, baying at each other one after the other, seemingly ad infinitum: the bird would kaw, the mutt would bark in response, the seagull would be startled and kaw again, which transgression the dog would punish with another bark, and on and on and on. I seriously wondered if the two creatures would be stuck in an infinite loop, with knee-jerk fight-or-flight response mechanisms overriding the need for food, or water, or movement of anything but the throat muscles. This perfectly repetitious sequence seemed to perfectly embody the academic concept of humour as the unexpected mechanisation of the everyday (I can’t remember which academic said this, but the view is covered in Tom McCarthy’s critical text on the Tintin books, ‘Tintin and the Secret of Literature’, which is not at my disposal as I write) Eventually, however, they stopped.
Fast forward to 4.49 this afternoon, and John Isner finally triumphing over Nicolas Mahut after the longest tennis match in recorded history. Trumping the seagull and the dog, this pair had held their loop for 11 hours and 5 minutes, in a vivid, surreal (not least for those who commentated the game – in Paolo Bandini’s live text feed for the Guardian website, the players had metamorphised into zombies by the start of today’s play) realisation of a sporting thought experiment that has intrigued me once or twice – what happens if deadlock can’t be broken by either skill or time constraint? What happens if these sudden death penalties go on for ever?
It’s a rare occasion when a sporting event can come to graphically embody a philosophical conundrum, and the significance of this occasion has been wasted on nobody: the BBC’s Claire Balding was the first to ask what Isner-Mahut 2010 means for ‘humankind and the game of tennis’, and the tie already has its own extensive Wikipedia page, complete with sections labelled ‘Background’ and ‘Aftermath’. The match will also, in more prosaic terms, go down as one of those ‘Where Were You…’ moments that are insistently held up as part of the backdrop to our collective unconscious. I relish that when asked, I’ll be able to respond with a peculiar, coincidental story about a seagull and a dog stuck in a seemingly never-ending call and response…
By Luke Healey