Isner-Mahut: Five years later

On June 22, 2010, John Isner and Nicolas Mahut walked out onto Court 18 at the All England Club in a seemingly mundane first-round matchup. But as the games and sets wore on, mundane gave way to extraordinary. Three days later, when the match finally concluded, records were shattered and legacies cemented as the world was captivated by the longest match in the history of the game -- an 11-hour, 5-minute marathon that transcended sports.

With the onset of Wimbledon just days away, ESPN.com is taking a look at fallout from a match that today remains a global phenomenon.

Five years later, what does 70-68 mean?

John Isner: Those numbers are etched in my memory. It's a basketball score, 70-68. It always reminds me of that. I'll never forget these two numbers for as long as I live. It's just crazy.

Nicolas Mahut: It's more of good memories. But when I think about the match I just can't stop thinking about that I lost it. I will always have the feeling that John Isner is the winner of this match. But, you know, a lot of people came to me after a few months and told me that this match was much more than win or lose. It was something else.

You know, the funny thing is a few weeks ago I was at a charity dinner, and I was sitting with someone who didn't know anything about tennis and he said, "Hey, what's your name?" I said, "My name is Nicolas Mahut." And he said to me, "Oh, are you the guy who played that match at Wimbledon?" And I said, "Yes, yes." So we started to talk a little bit about the match and eventually he said to me, "By the way, did you win this match?"

So it was a little bit funny to me that it happened five years ago and that people still remember this match but he didn't know if I was the winner. So, maybe, in 10 years people will think I won the match."

Craig Boynton, Isner's coach at the time: You don't really have an idea of that score until you count to 70 and realize how long it takes. It puts a new perspective on it, and you realize how incredible those three days were.

Boris Vallejo, Mahut's coach at the time: It is impossible to imagine that a match can go for so long. With the level of intensity in matches these days, you can have long matches, but at some point, something is going to happen. But during that match, there was some moments for break points, match points -- but no one ever had the shot to make before the last game.

Sam Querrey, ATP No. 44: I mean, if you ever had asked me would we ever see something like that I would've said, "No way." Will we ever see that again? You'd like to think no way, but for some reason it happened there, so, maybe, it could happen again. But I don't think I'll ever see it.

It was probably tough to stay focused, but it was probably pretty fun to be a part of something like that. Looking back, win or lose, it has to be cool to say you were a part of that.

Justin Gimelstob, Isner's current coach: I was the first person to interview John after the match. He was pretty lucid, which was impressive considering he had just been through the ringer. He was definitely toast, but still a pretty good effort from him just to be able to speak. Sometimes it's human emotion, sometimes it's physical, sometimes tactical, logistical, whatever it is. But there was no way to this day we thought they'd come close to embarking on this kind of match with that score.

Serena Williams, WTA No. 1: I think it was exciting. So many people are wondering, What is this? So many people were asking that never played tennis before, "What happened at Wimbledon with this match?" It was definitely historic.

Milos Raonic, ATP No. 8: I think it gave tennis a big outlet on a lot of main-stage media in maybe a quieter time, especially being the first week in a Slam. I believe that was in the first round, so those first three days that it was really being there were a lot of people that necessarily wouldn't be following tennis that early in the tournament that were just glued on it for the historic aspect. So I think that's always a benefit to get people wanting to participate more.

Andy Murray, ATP No. 3: I think it was obviously ridiculous the length of the match and how it went. I personally, because of my game style and the way that I play, I don't think we'd ever come close to playing a match that is that long.

I saw bits and pieces of that match, and both of them obviously served extremely well. There wasn't many chances really either way because of the way that they were both playing. I didn't see loads of it, but it was just strange, like, to go practice and sort of come back and the match would still be on. And then, like, the next day, came in and practiced, and it was still going.

It was just weird because, well, you never see anything like that in tennis.

Was this match a blessing or a curse for Isner?

Isner: I think it goes both ways. A blessing in the sense that I was really starting to come into my own at the time in terms of getting my ranking up and I was making a very good living on the court. This match took over the world in a sense. It got my name and my face out there. Put it this way: I know the World Cup was going on, and this was stealing headlines from that.

A curse in the sense that a lot of people only remember me from this match. I'd like to think that I've had a pretty good career outside that match. It's not just that match; I've done very well for myself.

Vallejo: Blessing, for sure. I would say it was something completely extraordinary what they did. John and Nico went into something that nobody ever had experienced before, and they search really deep into themselves to be able to compete so hard. That is something unbelievable. For myself and anybody who watched this match have huge respect for them. The memories are plenty, but the memories today are pretty good, but after the match it was pretty difficult for Nico for weeks and months. The memories are of John, his coach Craig [Boynton], Nico and everything. John showed a lot of fair play to Nico at the match, which was fantastic. Nico and John are pretty good friends now. What they experienced there is something very special, and they shared this together.

Querrey: It was great for the game, great for John. Anytime tennis gets on the map it's great. For that day or two, it was the sporting event to watch around the world.

Karen Isner, John's mother: Probably [a curse] because it was awful. It was not fun. Yeah, I think it was physically debilitating. I think it just occupied so much air everywhere that John went that he just got really tired of talking about it. Nobody ever asked him a question about anything else, and so I just think, I don't think it is a pleasant memory. I think there are a lot of other things he'd prefer to be remembered for than that match.

We really don't talk about the match. In our house we have one picture -- like a little 8-by-10 framed picture of John and Nicolas hugging at the end of the match. Besides that, there is nothing in our house that would indicate that match occurred.

Boynton: In the short term, it was more of a curse. As time goes on, and people begin to appreciate it more and more, John can reflect on that match and it will be more of a blessing.

Mary Joe Fernandez, ESPN analyst: I don't see it as a curse at all. I don't know if it was a blessing, but it made both of them famous, so in that regard, perhaps. It's just one of those fluky things that happened. Moving forward, it hurt him in the next match. He wasn't able to perform to the same level.

Jordan Isner, John's brother: Physically, it took a huge toll on John. I have pictures where he is black and blue and has blisters all over his feet. Still, a total blessing. He wasn't 100 percent for a couple of months, but it was such a bizarre, unique experience that will never be duplicated.

How about the insane stats (11 hours, 5 minutes over three days, 215 aces, 183 total games)?

Isner: I think people only remember my aces, but there were 215 combined. That's 103 for Mahut. The serving consistency during that match was pretty remarkable.

Somewhere in the 20s, we knew it was getting insane when you could hear the buzz from the crowd. It just took a life of its own at that point. On Court 18, you can see what's going on around the court. People were trying to get in, and no one would give up their seat. At a certain vantage point, you could see Henman Hill and people were yelling. It was a wild atmosphere.

Gael Monfils, ATP No. 18: I remember feeling I had to go see the fifth set a little bit because the numbers were so crazy. Yeah, I went to see it. And then I said I have to go back to the hotel, drive for 45 minutes, and then when I got there it was still on and never finished. I couldn't believe the score. Then it stopped, and the next day it was unbelievable, too. I remember it was a great experience to watch and to see how much Nico and John give to the crowd and to tennis. It was great. I think I was preparing for my match at the end, but I was watching.

Williams: Yeah, I think everyone that participated in Wimbledon that year followed it. People that didn't participate definitely followed it. I was just hoping I wasn't behind them after Day 3. I was like, "I do not want to be behind Isner-Mahut," because they kept extending it. It was an amazing time, I think, in the history of tennis. I don't know it could ever be done again.

Nick Bollettieri, Hall of Fame tennis coach: When I think about those numbers, I think I am at a cricket game. You don't relate those numbers to tennis. With matches like that, it's the little things that make a difference, but what we saw was an unbelievable display of endurance. The game today is far different that it was in the '60s, '70s and '80s. The game is made up of strong techniques and physical and mental fortitude. But in this match, it was all about endurance. With all the running, jumping, stopping and sliding, it was a big strain for their bodies. It was an unbelievable display of endurance.

Did you feel for Mahut after the match?

Isner: I was so tired at that point, I don't exactly remember. But the story wasn't that I won the match, but that we both played it and were able to withstand the length. You hear in sports there are no losers, but in our match, he really didn't lose by any means. It was about the two of us not backing down.

Prior to that match, I didn't know Nico at all. Barely spoke to him. When I walked by him, I would give him a nod -- nothing more than that. Since our match, we've become extremely close. I've gotten to know his parents really well, along with his wife and his son. He knows my parents really well. My mom loves him more than anyone in the world. He's one of the most genuine guys that there is -- a fantastic person. You couldn't have asked to play a match like we had against a better guy and a great competitor.

Vallejo: I went outside of the court before him, and I waited for him where you enter the doors to the locker room, there are stairs to go up, and I waited for him up those stairs. When he arrived, there wasn't anybody around, and I put him in my arms and I told him, "You are a champion." Of course, he lost that match, but what he showed, what he did, is truly what a champion can do.

When you go through a match like that, winning or losing has a lot of importance to how you recover from a match like this one. Emotionally, the brain is overloaded. You use everything you have. Losing the match was very difficult for Nico to go through. It took him a lot of time physically and mentally. He wasn't feeling good in the locker room; he was having a difficult time and he couldn't control his body. His memory, his mind, was completely out because he was overly exhausted. It was a bit scary to have no reaction, and he couldn't even sit by himself.

Boynton: My heart broke for him. Actually, the coolest thing about that whole match was the relationship that not only John and Nico formed, but that Nico and I became close also. I'll cherish his friendship forever. Seeing what he went through right next to the court, knowing he was playing catch-up -- always one game behind with that pressure was so tough on him in that fifth set.

Querrey: Yeah, I did, because it's tough and you didn't want either guy to lose, and Nico is such a great guy. He's such a fun personality. But you also felt bad for John, too. You know, he wins, but he's basically out of the tournament by that point because he's so tired, his toes are all blistered up. They're both out of the tournament by that point.

Gimelstob: I saw Mahut in the locker room after, and he was just physically and emotionally shattered. The trauma, just trying to keep it together mentally was excruciating to watch. But at the end of the day, he was still a part of something iconic. Look, five years later, Mahut has come back, played nicely and won a couple of tournaments and had an excellent career.

Fernandez: There are so many matches where you say there shouldn't be a loser. Federer-Nadal from Wimbledon 2008, Federer-Roddick a year later. There are some matches that are so good, whether the quality of length that you wish there were two winners.

Bollettieri: As Vince Lombardi said, "My team never lost, we just ran out of time." You had to feel for Mahut, but he was not a loser on that day.

Murray: Well, he should have broken serve in 70 return games [laughter]. Yeah, I mean, obviously, look, that's one of those things that with tennis; I mean, in other sports, that would have ended in a draw. But, you know, that's not the case with tennis.

It was a shame, but even if he won the match, there's no chance he's going to recover and do anything in the next round, anyway. Obviously, that's what happened to John.

So I don't know. They might say otherwise. Didn't really feel like there was a winner in that match.

Karen Isner: Of course. How could you not? And because, obviously, it could've just as easily been Mahut won. It's not as if one of them was better than the other. And the funny thing is they've become really good friends. He is a sweetheart of a guy. [Mahut] struggled after that match physically and emotionally. John struggled physically for probably four months -- it took him that long to get back to optimal health. He was not healthy.

Any advice you'd give for an 11-hour match?

Isner: Don't do it! You can't plan on it, so there really isn't much advice I can give. I remember prior to that Wimbledon, I had played a long clay-court season, and I went back to Florida to train and I went to Wimbledon a little late. But it was tough training. I busted my ass two-three a day on the court. And then two hours in the gym. I remember telling my coach I could play for days at Wimbledon. If I could play for hours in that dripping humidity, I could play forever at Wimbledon, where it's 60-something degrees and little humidity.

Wimbledon is the only place you could play something like our match. It's the only place where you could do it physically.

Mahut: To go over your limits. By far it is the greatest experience. I learned a lot about myself as a tennis player, but also as a person, as a man. Actually, I believe I'm a better tennis player since that match and I know more about myself. I know about myself that I can push when I'm tired, and when I say I want to give up, I really know I can go further. I'm using all of this very often. When I feel tired or I'm having a bad day, I just remember I went really far.

Boynton: I don't think there is any advice. It's all in the preparation. But let me say this first: I hope [an 11-hour match] never happens again. I wouldn't wish this upon my worst enemy. You can't get to an 11-hour match unless you're prepared, and the boys were prepared. They had the best serving days of their lives. These things just evolve. You can't really train for them.

Mohamed Lahyani, chair umpire during Isner-Mahut: We do this every match -- we have to maintain focus on every shot, every point. A fellow chair umpire told me once, "You have to keep the head empty and the room full" -- basically, do not let your mind drift off, stay in the moment.

That's what we train for, I didn't even think about it until it was over.

Vallejo: Before this match, it would've been difficult to think about anything like that happening. We prepared to play for everything. But for this match, there is nothing you can prepare. It's something beyond what you can think about. I know Nico very well, and I know when he wants something, when he decide for something, he can go extremely, extremely far. A long match like this one, it's not only winning or losing, it's finding energy elsewhere. I know that Nico wanted to win for the ones he cared about, and he was thinking about his mom, who had passed away years ago. She was very important to his tennis and was the one who came to all the tournaments.

Win by two games or fifth-set tiebreaker?

Isner: I'd prefer a fifth-set tiebreaker. Some would agree, some would disagree. When you play three out of five sets, it can get really hot. At the French, at the US Open, certainly the Aussie Open. Three out of five sets can be brutal, but I wouldn't change that. If I could change anything, I would like a final-set tiebreaker. But wouldn't want to play two out of three. It's what makes Grand Slams unique.

From a fan's perspective, a fifth-set tiebreaker is pretty exciting. It's sort of a sudden death.

Mahut: I think you have to ask the fans. To me, I think it's great to have the Slams go the distance because the best players always win. So I think it makes the difference between the other tournaments and the Slams. So I think we have to keep these matches. But for TV maybe we should do like the US Open and play a tiebreak in the fifth set, maybe. But this is something we have to talk all the players together.

Boynton: I'm all for drama, but I think if you play to 10-all, it should be a tiebreaker for this reason: 1. If you're at 10-all in the fifth set, you've probably played 4-5 hours. And so, OK, if you're at 4 hours, 5 hours, whatever it is, and you've played overtime from six games all to 10. Now let's play a tiebreaker to give the person who wins a fighting chance in the next round. Generally, if you're going on and on and on, your chance to get through the next round, especially against an opponent who is rested, severely decreases. And 10-all, that's enough drama, right?

Novak Djokovic, ATP No. 1: I am more in support of a tiebreak in the fifth set in any competition than for no tiebreak. I also support the fact to have a certain change in the sport. I think it's the right time. As we go along and as we evolve as a sport that is very global, I think that we should all strongly consider certain applying certain changes.

Of course, you don't want to change the game completely. There is a long tradition in integrity of the sport that, you know, is very recognized around the world because of that.

But still, I believe there is some room for improvements.

Monfils: All depends on what you consider too long a match. 70-68? Yeah, but that will happen once. I don't think it's too long. I think, for me, I'm all for longer matches because they're better. I'm a player that wishes we can have longer matches; it brings the player to a great atmosphere, and for the crowd it's more atmosphere.

Bollettieri: It would be a shame for a fifth set to be determined by a tiebreaker. A mishit, a net cord could decide a match after five hours, and that's not right.

Fernandez: From a player's vantage point, I'd like to see it played out. When you play for that long, it's tough to have a result based on one of two points. As a fan and broadcaster, I love the fifth-set tiebreaker. At the US Open, knowing there's a finish coming up makes it much more exciting. You know a big climax is coming. I'm a little bit torn. I do feel there should be some kind of limit as to how long it can go. Maybe a tiebreaker at 20-all?