You love your sport, right? You know the feeling of getting into the zone, feeling like there’s nothing that could stop you. In those moments, you feel like the longest tennis match is a walk in the park.

Now pause for a second. How long do you think you could really play? An hour-long rugby match? A three-hour run? A five-hour swim? How long before you get tired and just throw in the proverbial towel?

Thankfully, most of us never have to find out the answer to this question, because we play our sports for reasonable lengths of time, pat ourselves on the back, go home, take a shower, and have a beer (or a banana, if that’s your style).

The Gift that Kept Going

But in 2010, John Isner and Nicolas Mahut found out just how long they were capable of sticking out a tennis game. When Isner and Mahut walked out onto Court 18 for a first-round match of the Wimbledon Championships, they probably had a lot of hopes and expectations of themselves. 

But nobody predicted this matchup far removed from Centre Court would go on to break no less than 12 world records, among them the record for the longest match in the history of tennis: eleven hours and five minutes of gameplay lasting three days and ending in a score of 70 to 68, numbers so high and unusual that the scoreboard malfunctioned.

What began as a tennis match on the afternoon of June 23, 2010 soon had the world tuning in to a testament to the human spirit. American John Isner, the 23rd seed, all 6 foot 10 inches of him, played against Frenchman Nicolas Mahut. They played until the sun set, picking it up again the next day. The match reached a score of 20-all, then 30-all, then 40-all. Once they hit 50-all and the sun started going down again, fans began asking, “Has this ever happened before?”.

On its third day, the instantly famous Mahut-Isner game became the world’s longest tennis match when Isner managed to finally win with a score of 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6 and 70-68. The fifth (and last) set of the match took eight hours and 11 minutes of gameplay in and of itself. Like a 50-inning baseball game, it was unheard of. 

Hearing about all of this begs the question – “How??”. How did these two men endure 183 tennis games in one match? How did they manage it physically, psychologically, and strategically? And dare we ask… why? 

And Keeps on Giving

Speaking to ESPN in 2015, five years after the game, Mahut and Isner offered some potential answers to these questions. Recalled Isner, “I remember prior to that Wimbledon… 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.”

john isner serve
Kate Tann

For Mahut, on the other hand, the unexpected and unplanned experienced proved his ability to him. He said, “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.”

So what was it, then, that allowed these athletes to pull off this seemingly impossible feat? Intense physical preparation or the grit and perseverance to keep pushing themselves in the moment? 

It was almost certainly both. These were professional athletes at the top of their game, people who dedicated their lives to training, pushing themselves to their physical limits on a regular basis. They were no strangers to the feeling of being near-collapse and pushing through anyway. As much as they could, they trained and prepared themselves to have the physical stamina – as well as (and perhaps even more importantly) mental strength – to do the impossible.

Sportsmanship

But perhaps the most important lesson we can take away from this match is one about sportsmanship. Two tennis players who previously had barely a relationship with one another came out of this match lifelong brothers, both explaining it wasn’t about who won or and who lost.

Said Isner, “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.”

He went on to mention, “Prior to that match, I didn’t know Nico at all. Barely spoke to him… Since our match, we’ve become extremely close… 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.” 

And sports spectators couldn’t have asked for a better match to be amazed and inspired by.