Mahut, Isner and Me


John Isner. Image:

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


4 responses to “Mahut, Isner and Me

  1. Yeah, my answer when asked ‘where were you?’ will be ‘watching Germany vs Ghana,’ though I will be able to say ‘BUT, my friend told me this story about a seagull and a dog…’

    The first I heard of this was a friend’s status on facebook along the lines of ‘This tennis match is getting ridiculous.’ In retrospect, it seems notable that this match, which was seemingly the ultimate ideal in sporting competition (in that it pitted two equal opponants, and found a winner based on how they coped and performed at that specific time), has been seen as strange and some sort of pivotal moment in the progression of sport and/or tennis. The perfect sporting moment perhaps?

  2. Dave, I think your right when you say “the perfect sporting moment”; no perhaps needed. I believe this was so because it was quite simply the tennis equivalent to a ‘fight to the death’. What a treat though, as Daniel pointed out, having that on one side and the Italy/Slovakia game on the other. It really epitomised the essence of sport and its brilliance. If anything there were two perfect sporting moments occurring at exactly the same time. One an epic that may never be repeated, while the other was the reason why the World Cup is (imho) the greatest sporting competition in the world, as a near minnow beat the current world champions in a great 3-2 game. Phew… what a day! Now if only we could beat the Germans…

  3. I think this was the best thing I read about the game on the wiki page, summed up why it was so fantastically fantastic (in particular quote 16)!:

    On the second day of play, the courtside scoreboard stood still at 47–47 and later went dark. IBM programmers said it was only programmed to go to 47–47 but would be fixed by the next day.[15] The on-line scoreboard at the official website lasted slightly longer: At 50–50 it was reset to 0–0. Users were asked to “please add 50 to the Isner/Mahut game score”.[16] An IBM programmer worked on the computerized scoring system until 11:45 pm to accommodate the match’s scores for the next day, although it would have again malfunctioned had the match gone beyond 25 more games.

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