Reporting from Wimbledon, England — The final shot came off the racket of John Isner, a backhand hit with a single purpose late Thursday afternoon on Court 18 of Wimbledon.
It was meant to be a winner, with Isner playing the 491st minute and 138th game of the final set in a first-round Wimbledon match that had carried on across three days.
This backhand found its spot, barely out of the reach of gallant Frenchman Nicolas Mahut, who lunged for the ball anyway.
When the winning shot landed — the 980th point of a match that lasted a record 11 hours and 5 minutes — neither the 25-year-old Isner nor the 28-year-old Mahut could do much more than drop to his knees.
Isner was the winner, 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68.
It took them an hour and five minutes Thursday to finish what they started on Tuesday. Making history can be tedious.
Isner, who wore a University of Georgia Bulldog T-shirt afterward in honor of the place where he played college tennis, couldn’t quite grasp the magnitude of what had been accomplished. When he left Wednesday night, with the score tied, 59-59, Isner said he didn’t feel rooted in reality.
“I thought it was a dream,” Isner said. “I didn’t think that type of match was possible. So I was really expecting to wake up, in all seriousness.”
The tennis on Thursday was no different from what had been played Tuesday and Wednesday. It was elemental. Big serves, returns into the net, little in between except an occasional two- or three-stroke rally, sometimes an attempt at a net rush or a lob.
The crack in Mahut’s final service game came on the second point, when he made a forehand error after leading 15-0. At 15-15 Mahut tried a delicate drop shot, but he put the ball into the net. Mahut won the next point with a volley for 30-30, but then, once again, Isner got a swing at a second serve and it paid off.
The 6-foot-9 American hit a forehand winner to give himself a fifth match point in the longest-ever set. As the crowd on Court 18 roared, Isner converted his fifth match point.
Afterward, Isner said Mahut shouldn’t have tried to be so precise with the drop shot.
“I actually slipped,” he said. “Anywhere on the court I wasn’t getting to the ball. Then at 30-all I hit a great winner up the line. In situations like that, when you have a match point and you’re returning you tend to get little tight.
“I told myself to just go for it. I didn’t want to lose that point playing the wrong way. If I go for my shot and miss, that’s fine.”
Until that final game, it seemed Isner was suffering the most.
On Wednesday night, he had moved between points with his shoulders slumped and his head hanging.
But around the time the score was 60-60 Thursday, Mahut began pulling at his stomach, as if he might be cramping.
Isner, though, seemed finally ready to crack at 68-68. He got behind 0-30 on his serve and threw down his racket. The frustration release seemed to work because Isner promptly put out four unreturnable serves and held to lead 69-68.
Remarkably Mahut went on to play doubles Thursday with partner Arnaud Clement on the same Court 18, though that match was suspended after one set. Because of darkness. Just as darkness had suspended the match with Isner on Tuesday, and again Wednesday.
When Mahut finally met with the media, at 9:39 p.m., the day was done.
“This was just a match I will never forget,” he said of his loss to Isner. “But at this moment it’s really painful.”
He said he hoped that everybody who watched had one particular recollection. “I just want them to remember that we were just two big fighters and one of them just won.”
Even chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani seemed to suffer. He would sometimes massage his neck and more than once his voice cracked when he would announce the score. “I didn’t get a chance to feel tired,” Lahyani said. “I was gripped by the amazing match and my concentration stayed good. I owed that to the players. Their stamina was breathtaking and their behavior exceptional.”
Isner must be back at noon here Friday for his second-round match against Dutchman Thiemo de Bakker, who himself needed to win his first-round match, 16-14, in the fifth set.
“I’m going to do everything necessary to get myself ready,” Isner said. “I think I definitely can win.”
The only thing Isner might miss is what he found waiting for him in the locker room Wednesday night: Andy Roddick with a bag full of takeout food.