Column

The long and short of it is, John Isner is Wimbledon's marathon man

We venture out like somebody trekking the Sahara Desert. John Isner and Marin Cilic were about to finish their match at Wimbledon, and preparation was crucial.

There was the chilled water bottle, the sunscreen for reapplying, even some of those dried food packs that become edible when you add water. We figured if a bonfire were needed later, we could find two sticks to rub together.

Isner and Cilic had already played 4 hours 15 minutes, and when darkness finally shut them down about 9:30 Friday night, they were tied in the fifth set, 10-10. There are no tiebreakers in fifth sets at Wimbledon. You jolly well don't tinker with tradition here.

Saturday was a perfect weather day at Wimbledon, that in itself an oxymoron. We arrive at Court 1 just in time to see Caroline Wozniacki quickly finish off Camilla Georgi, 6-2, 6-2. Wozniacki seemed to understand the need to preserve as much daylight as possible for the next match.

When she and Georgi depart, about seven hours of daylight remain. Will it be enough?

Officials have already warmed up the electronics. The speed gun shows a serve of 136 mph. The certainly wasn't left over from the Wozniacki match.

En route, we walk past Court 18 and the plaque on the wall that commemorates Isner's 2010 victory over Nicolas Mahut. That took three days, or, in playing time, a record 11 hours 5 minutes. Isner won that one, 70-68, in the fifth.

He says the other day that he used to pause and kind of savor the plaque when he walked past, but these days, every time he does, he is recognized and cornered for selfies.

"I just keep on walking now," he says.

Now, just a nine-iron from that plaque, Isner and Cilic walk in. Court 1 is full. This could take two minutes. Or two days. Are these real tennis fans or freak-show lovers? How many of them have attended at least one NASCAR race to root for wrecks?

Isner is 6 feet 10, Cilic 6-6. You wonder if this is a tennis match or an audition for the Lakers.

The issue here, of course, is Isner, the American player ranked and seeded 17th. He is also the current best of a skimpy U.S. men's lot. He is a big puppy dog. He always tries his best and has done quite well for somebody playing the wrong sport. Power forward, John?

Being 6-10 is great for serving, not so great for bending for low volleys and scampering around. Isner plays more tiebreakers than anybody on the tour because, 1) nobody can return his serve, and 2) he mostly can't return anybody else's.

The numbers didn't lie: If Cilic wins, the final score would be 7-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-7, plus four more digits and a hyphen. If Isner wins, it would be 6-7, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, plus four digits and a hyphen. Hard to explain how they messed up that third set.

There is a another number, a little known statistic. And it adds greatly to the intrigue.

If Cilic beats Isner in this one, it would mark the 25th consecutive time the Croatian has beaten a U.S. player on the tour. His last loss was to James Blake at the 2008 Australian Open.

And it's the Fourth of July!

Doesn't the Patriot Act have a clause about this? Shouldn't Isner get an extra serve? Hasn't Cilic done enough harm to our national tennis psyche? Oh, yes, and guess who is the current holder of the U.S. Open title?

If Cilic wins this one, might customs stop him in New York? We are talking a real Yankee killer here, and it has nothing to do with baseball.

We clutch the dried food and they begin. Might we miss deadline on this one, even with the eight-hour time break?

Cilic serves first, is in trouble for a moment at 15-30, and then does what these big bombers do — closes out the game with a 128-mph ace.

Isner, now at 10-11, hits one 133 for 15-all, then immediately gets into a big fix at 15-40, which represents two match points for Cilic. Isner hits one 130, then another one 124 that he follows to the net for a winning volley. For big bombers, ho-hum stuff.

The water bottle is still cold, but suddenly this feels different. Cilic hits a deep return, then a winning drop shot. He seems to be handling Isner's fast stuff more easily. He is also smiling that devilish grin, same as in New York at the Open last September. It turned out to be like an assassin's bullet.

Isner saves that third match point, actually gets it to game point and then disintegrates. At ad-in, he double faults. At deuce, Cilic passes him and hits the back line. There's that devilish grin again.

Now it is match point No. 4. Shockingly, inexplicably, unbelievably, Isner double faults.

Cilic wins the fifth, 12-10. Another sad day for Chevys, levees and apple pie. It was over in 16 minutes. No more sunscreen needed.

Afterward, a deeply disappointed Isner says, "I had one double fault all day yesterday. . . . I've lost a lot of matches like this. It sucks."

Cilic says that he felt good going into the resumption of the match because, "I felt like I had been putting more danger on him [in his service games] than he was on me."

Cilic was asked about his next opponent. He said he knew him, had practiced with him, thought he was a good grass-court player.

There it was again, that devilish grin.

Cilic's next opponent is Denis Kudla, a wild-card entrant and the last U.S. player remaining in the men's draw.

U.S. tennis fans may want to consider prayer.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com.

Twitter: @DwyreLATimes

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