Isner-Mahut: Where it all began

This is the first of a three-part series.

There is an elfin quality to Nicolas Mahut. The Frenchman's nose and chin are intricately chiseled. His ears are ample. Swirls of pink skin peek through from those unshaven cheeks. Chestnut-colored hair, encouraged by gel, stands on end in a perpetual state of unrest.

Last month, after several postponements -- doubles and dinner, as will happen, intervened -- he found himself in the intimacy of Interview Room No. 4 at Roland Garros. Sitting on the edge of a leather chair, he prepared to discuss the tennis match of his life.

You might remember it.

Mahut, a journeyman in this elite profession, and America's John Isner hooked up in a first-round match at Wimbledon so broad and sweeping that, nearly a year later, it remains difficult to process.

Over three days at the All England Club, they played for a total of 11 hours and 5 minutes. The fifth set, which was suspended after the second day at 59-all, alone required 8 hours and 11 minutes -- some 98 minutes longer than the longest previous match on record. Isner won 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68.

Back in the locker room, an exhausted Mahut cried for an hour. He did more interviews in the next month than he had in his entire career. He probably spent more time talking with the media than playing the match itself.

"Oui," he said, laughing, "that's the truth."

Although Mahut's command of English is more than passable, he chose to listen to the questions in English, then answer in French to Nicola Arzani of the ATP World Tour. Arzani translated his answers back into English for ESPN.com.

When Philippe Bouin, the retired dean of French tennis writers, contacted Mahut about writing a book, he did not respond for months. Finally in December, he felt mentally prepared -- obligated on a certain level -- to relive the historic match. He has handled numerous interview requests with diligence and grace.

"I want to give everything," he said of the choice to articulate his thoughts in French.

Just as he did against Isner.

"The more difficult it got, the more I enjoyed it," said Mahut, now 29. "The more tired I got, the more I wanted to show that I could live up to the challenge."

Isner, too, has had an uneasy relationship with the match. One month later, on his way to the final in Atlanta, he said, "I'm getting pretty stale about the whole situation. I know I'll always have to answer questions about that match."

These days, he has grown more diplomatic.

"No," the 26-year-old said in a recent telephone conversation, "I'm not sick of it. I obviously have done a lot of interviews about it. Rightly so. It was pretty special."

Mohamed Lahyani, the chair umpire, was the third man on Court 18 for those three long days. He agreed to answer questions via email.

What do people say when they bring up the match?

"They asked how could I stand so long without going to the toilet?" Lahyani wrote. "How could I stay focused for such a long time?"

Of all the people involved, Isner's coach, Craig Boynton, might have the most thoughtful perspective. For nearly an hour, Boynton patiently broke down the details of the match.

He distilled the match down to this single sentence: "It was like time was standing still and racing at the speed of light -- at same time."

To this day, Boynton speaks haltingly when he remembers the match.

"You shake your head and go, 'Wow,'" he said. "You try to put your arms around it and, to some degree, you can't really do it justice. No one has ever seen anything like that.

"It's impossible to put into context."

Nevertheless, it must be attempted.

"Yeah," Boynton said, laughing, "good luck with that."


This is where it begins:

John Robert Isner, all 6 feet, 9 inches of him, churns -- lurches, really -- toward the finish line. His Size 15 Nike linebacker cleats slash at the grass. The humidity on this December day in Tampa is so thick and wet and cloying you can almost see it. Lungs desperate for oxygen, he spits out his breath in staccato bursts. On the football field of the athlete's compound at the Saddlebrook Resort, Isner staggers across the 200-yard finish line. Muscles, bathed in lactic acid, shrieking, he doubles over, his heart-rate monitor registering in the high 180s.

Strength and conditioning coach Kyle Morgan, who has seen Isner's heart rate hit 191, shrugs.

"Let's do it again," he says through labored breaths.

Side-by-side, they run through what Morgan calls an energy systems development circuit: a 20-yard sled push, 30-yard backpedal, sled pull, rope work, medicine ball, power twists, shuttle run, micro-hurdle, quick footwork drill and that awful 200-yard dash. In all, they do six maximum-effort circuits. It takes about an hour and burns more than 1,000 calories.

"Tennis players are pretty good athletes," Isner said. "I think we work harder than any other athletes, when the cameras are on -- and when they're off."

December, when the season's matches are over, is the most important month for the professional tennis player. This is when they build a foundation of fitness expected to carry them for the next 10 months.

"For his marathon match, John's body was trained to flush out lactic acid more efficiently and even harvest some of it for energy in certain times of depletion," Morgan explained. "His heart and lungs were trained to deliver oxygen throughout the body in an optimal manner so he could maintain peak power -- 130-plus-miles-per-hour serves -- while rarely on his knees gasping for air."

Nicolas Pierre Armand Mahut, born in Angers, France, is also an exceptionally well-conditioned athlete. This wasn't a factor, though, in his first-round qualifying match a year ago at Wimbledon. The No. 27 seed lost only three games to Canadian Frank Dancevic. The second round was different; Mahut needed four hours to close out Alex Bogdanovic of Great Britain. The score was 24-22 in the third. Those 46 games represented the longest third set in the history of qualifying at Wimbledon.

Mahut was forced to serve 15 times to stay in what Eurosport.com called an "epic match."

"I know after that I can focus for a long time," Mahut told his coach, Boris Vallejo. "It makes me feel very strong."

The third-round, against Austria's Stefan Koubek, was easier -- by three minutes. Mahut, ranked No. 148 in the world, dropped the first two sets and then played his way into Wimbledon's main draw with a draining five-set victory. The last two matches, played over a span of three days and consuming 115 games and 7 hours and 57 minutes, were the ideal preparation for what was to come.

After four days of rest, on the second day of the tournament, Mahut felt ready for his first-round match against Isner. They had met only one previous time, oddly enough on grass. Mahut won a routine 7-5, 6-4 match at Queen's Club three years earlier that was over in 72 minutes. There was a serious financial consideration at stake; a first-round loser at Wimbledon received 11,250 pounds, about $18,000, while the winner was guaranteed at least 18,750 pounds, more than $30,000.

Court 18 is one of Wimbledon's minor gems. It is wedged up against the broadcast center, and has the intimacy of a 782-seat theater. The all-glass walls of the BBC and ESPN studios give it a fish-bowl feel. Onto this stage, the No. 23-seeded Isner and Mahut walked on a warm Tuesday evening. The first ball went up at 9 minutes past 6 local time; it would have been later if Sergiy Stakhovsky hadn't retired from the day's first match against Sam Querrey.

Serving at 4-all, Mahut double-faulted twice and Isner served out the first set. It was, the 6-3, 176-pound athlete said later, the only time he felt angry during the entire match. Mahut broke Isner's serve -- easily -- in the second game of the second set and eventually leveled the match.

Because of his big game, the baby-faced Isner often finds himself in tiebreakers. Because of his serve, he usually wins these all-or-nothing frames. In the third-set tiebreaker, Isner hit four aces with his Prince EXO3 racket, but lost the frame 9-7.

When Isner fell into a 3-1 hole in the fourth-set tiebreaker, Boynton felt a little queasy.

"If Nicolas just executes on a few points, the match is over," Boynton said. "That's another reason this match was so incredible, the what-ifs and maybes. John sure saved his bacon there.

"So many things had to happen just for it to get where it got."

Isner won the last six points to level the match at two sets all. Lahyani, citing the fading light, suspended the match at 4 minutes past 9. The players went to the locker room for some light treatment followed by dinner with their teams. Lahyani would dine at the All England Club with some of his officiating colleagues.

Because of the relatively late hour, he said, he went to bed early.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.