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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Mahut v Isner, 59-59: An epic for the ages

"Game Mahut.  59 games all, final set"

Update:  The marathon match finally ended, the USA's John Isner claiming an extra-ordinary 70-68 victory in the fifth and final set.  Below is a post that was written at 59-59 in the fifth, when play was halted due to light on the second day.

The match will go down as one of the truly great sporting events, and one of the most amazing tennis matches played, simply because of the sheer length of the match (11 hours), the tenacity of the players to hold serve 68 consecutive times (69 for Isner, of course), and for the mind-blowing physiological challenge it would impose.

History will document the number of records broken by the epic.  It was also show that John Isner collapsed, as predicted, in his next match against Thiemo de Bakker, losing 6-0, 6-3, 6-2.  This is hardly surprising, and would have been expected given his efforts over 183 games against Mahut.  Some of the physiology is explained below.

The longest match ever played 

It was, simply, an extra-ordinary feat of consistency, big serving and willpower, in a match that eventually concluded after 11 hours and five minutes.  The scoreboard couldn't stand the pace - the picture to the right was taken at 47-47, and at 50-50, it went blank...

Not surprisingly, the match has seen all kinds of records broken:
  • Longest match in history in terms of games played at 183 .  The previous record was 112 matches between Pancho Gonzales and and Charlie Pasarell in 1969.  And that was before the introduction of the tie-break in sets 1 to 4.  Post tie-breakers, the record was Andy Roddick's 21-19 win over Younes el Aynaoui in Australia in 2003.  That match had 83 games, which means Isner-Mahut is about to double it!
  • Longest match in history in terms of time played - 11 hours 5 mintues.  In fact, the fifth set in the Isner-Mahut match is longer than any match ever played!  It's taken 8 hours 11 minutes to play, and the previous longest match ever played was 6 hours, 33 minutes long (Santoro vs Clement, French Open 2004)
  • Most aces ever served.  It's not surprising, but given 59 services games in the final set alone, both players have easily surpassed the aces record, which stood at 78 to Ivo Karlovic in a Davis Cup match in 2009.  As it stands, Isner is the new record holder at 112 aces, and Mahut is on 103!
  • A total of 980 points has been played.  I'm not 100% sure whether this is a record, but even a match with 100 games would be unlikely to see 900 points played - I would estimate that the number of points per game is 6.  So 980 points is likely to be a record.
Looking a bit more deeply into the stats, and if you watched the second night, the set hardly really looked like ending!  There were two moments - one at 33-32 (or something, I forget, it was so long ago) when Isner had two break points on Mahut's serve.  The Frenchman saved them, and it would take another 40-odd games before the next break points - this time to Mahut.  And then in the final game of the night, Mahut dug deep again to save a fourth match point.

On both occasions, brilliant serving rescued the situation and the match continued.  Isner in particular, produced remarkable serving, only because he looked so exhausted after about the 90th game that it seemed almost inconceivable that he could continue to survive.  Between points, Isner looked more like an Ironman triathlete having the worst day of his life than a tennis player, making almost statuesque movements as he seemed to stagger from one side of the court to the other.  But with the ball in hand, he smashed down unreturnable serves one after the other, and the quality of the play, given the occasion, was quite remarkable. 

Mahut's performance is no less amazing.  In fact, in many respects, it's quite astonishing - Mahut had to qualify for Wimbledon by playing three matches - the second one went to 24-22 in the fifth set!  And then the third went to five sets as well - he won it 6-4.  So Mahut has now played three consecutive five set matches.  And the third of them, well, it's the equivalent of about about 13 fifth sets!  And yet he continued to run with energy, making some amazing shots off the ground, in addition to his ever rising ace count.

The physiological demand of 10 hours of tennis?

I'm always curious about what the physiological demands are of sport and this type of match demands that kind of question!  Using GPS, it would be quite simple to get a handle on how many times a player changes direction, stops and then accelerates again, as well as distance covered.  Unfortunately, that is not done for tennis like it is for football (as we've seen in our 2010 WC coverage).  However, a couple of estimations/assumptions may give you an idea of why this would be interesting:
  • With 980 points in the match, one might assume an average rally length of 2 shots per player (serving was dominant, so rallies would be short).  Two shots means four changes of direction, because a player must run to the ball, play the shot, and then return to court position.  
  • The distance covered per point might then be about 10m.  So that gives us ± 4,400 changes of direction, and 10 km of running, much of which is sideways, and most of which consists of short accelerations to the ball, followed by rapid decelerations.  Add to this the walking between points, which is at least another 15m, and the total distance covered is closer to 30km.  
  • That may not seem significant (if you come from an endurance sport background), but remember that each run is ended with a sudden stop, and an acceleration to return to good court position.  And, you're not moving forward in a straight line, but sideways.  So you're looking at about 2000 lateral "sprints" making up about 10km, by my assumptions.
  • The deceleration is perhaps the most demanding part - stopping, and then driving off the same leg in the other direction imposes a significant challenge, which you can easily experience by going out and doing lateral runs over 5m for even 10 minutes
  • Every serve is a jump - so that's 491 jumps for Mahut and 489 jumps for Isner.  They may be small, but each jump and landing comes at a cost and I can only imagine how tired their legs will be today.  The problem with jumping is that when landing, the muscle must perform an eccentric contraction, where it decelerations the body.  This type of contraction causes microscopic damage to the muscle, and this is ultimately responsible for the failure of muscle, which was so visibly demonstrated on the second night.  Also, Isner's sluggishness during his next match, a straight-sets loss to de Bakker, could be attributed to the muscle damage and recovery from this kind of jumping, combined with multiple decelerations.
  • Then there's the significant matter of having to swing a racket through the ball at least 2000 times, and the upper body fatigue that this would cause.  All in all, an incredible challenge to sustain this for 10 hours.
Of course, these are assumptions, I'd love to have real data, but sadly, tennis doesn't seem to invite that kind of research (unless I'm missing something).  Then there is the mental pressure of being in what is really 'sudden death', particularly for Mahut, who is serving second. 

To be continued...

In any event, what was interesting is that when the match was eventually suspended for darkness, it was Isner who seemed most reluctant to leave.  He seemed to be moving more and more slowly, and John McEnroe suggested that he looked "delirious".  Mahut was saying he could no longer see the ball, and the match was suspended.  It resumes at 3.30pm today, and given how these things go, it might well go another 20 matches (or more), or it could be over in 2.

It may seem like an anticlimax, and to have finished last night in the gloom would have been a fitting end.  But nothing can take away from what is surely one of the greatest tests of mental, tactical and physical strength that we have seen.

And for the winner - a match against Thiemo de Bakker, later in the same day...


Anonymous said...

They have tracked running stats in matches. I remember when Agassi used to play that in a match he would typically run about 5 miles while his opponent would do about 8 miles since he takes the ball early standing closer to the baseline and can create bigger angles and is usually on the offensive.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI Anonymous

Any idea where? I'd like to see the research. 5 to 8 miles sounds reasonable to me, but I'd like to actually see it, so if you have a link, it would be great.


Falcon (XB :) said...

When you also factor in the heights and weights of the two - Mahut 1.91m 80kg (very tall, though quite light for his height - BMI 21.9) and Isner 2.06m 111.4kg (!) then the duration and intensity of their athletic performances are even more remarkable.

I'd be interested in their total power output over the match - pity no GPS tracking and also vertical position monitoring...


Gene said...

What especially caught my attention is that Mahut served something like 65 straight games one down (or was it 68?), and was not the worse for wear until the last two or three games Thursday. That's spectacular mental fortitude. I also liked Roger Federer's comment that he both wished he were in a match like that and didn't want to be, the latter for fear of the physical repercussions which could last months.

Phil said...

I'm amazed they were both able to continue so long, given that starting out they must have "paced" their efforts expecting a normal 5th set of no more than 20 or so games. It must be as close as real sport gets to one of those exercise-till-exhaustion lab tests!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi David

Good points. I hadn't realized that Mahut was quite as big as that - I guess relative to Isner, he looked smaller and super-mobile! But you're right, GPS would be amazing. I don't know if you're following the Football World Cup,but you should check out the live coverage of matches on the FIFA website (fifa.com), and see the kind of data and stats they provide. It's unbelievable, just brilliant, and I think that tennis would easily be able to do something similar. I always have this gripe, but the quality of broadcasts would improve 10 fold if they just used technology that way.

To Gene:

Absolutely. I think at some point, especially on the second day, they just zoned out the score and played each game in total isolation. Players are always told not to worry about the score, but I think in this game, Mahut got close to that "zone" and the rhythm of the match was determined by it. It was as though both players believed they'd hold serve, and believed they wouldn't break it, and the cycle was set! Amazing coming together of the circumstances and the mindset.

And to Phil:

I was thinking something similar. I would imagine that at some point, perhaps 20-20, maybe 30-30, both players did start "pacing" in the sense that they could choose when to apply big efforts. And it was mostly on serve! Isner especially looked like he was in total shut-down between points, and then for half-a-second, he fired up, bombed a serve and then shut right down again!

It would have been really interesting to know whether the pace BETWEEN points dropped after say 25-25, or even the pace when returning, to see the impact of that exhaustion.

So maybe having gone well past that expected end-point, the nature of pacing changed. And like I said to Gene above, the game became somewhat cyclical, and I'm sure that has something to do with the application of effort at specific times.

A really amazing performance though!