TENNIS | WIMBLEDON
What is the longest ever match at Wimbledon? And in any Grand Slam event?
John Isner was back for Wimbledon 2023, the American most famous for his incredible ability to make a match really go the distance.
For those of us that watch tennis regularly we can expect an average three-set match to last around an hour and a half, 30-40 minutes or so per set. Of course, put a top seed against a debutant and it can all be over in a jiffy. Then again, when you have two players on a par with each other, we can assume it will go on somewhat longer, and if we’re talking about a major tournament like Wimbledon, then we could be taken into a fifth set and significantly longer viewing time.
The longest ever Wimbledon tennis match
John Isner, who was defeated in the 2023 first round by Spaniard Jaume Munar, is best known to many fans, particularly in Great Britain and those searching for information about things like this, for his astonishing contest with Nicolas Mahut on Court 18 at Wimbledon in 2010. That match spanned 11 hours and five minutes, with Isner, then number 10, eventually triumphing 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68 in an astoundingly long final set.
The 665-minute victory was spread out over three days beginning on 22 June and concluding on 24 June, with play having to be stopped twice due to a lack of natural light. Big serves after big serves entertained and thrilled the various selections of onlookers who needed numerous refills of strawberries and cream. More than 100 aces were fired down by each player, while 168 consecutive holds of serve were witnessed.
Such was the unexpected nature of the match length that the electronic scoreboard stopped functioning at 47-47 in the fifth set as, fairly understandably, it had not been programmed to keep scores beyond that point.
The American finally broke Mahut’s serve in the 138th game to prevail and progressed to the, wait for it, second round of the prestigious tournament. The fifth set alone lasted eight hours and 11 minutes, a little longer than the average match length I mentioned before.
Why does Wimbledon create longer matches?
All four tennis majors involve matches in the men’s competition that are the best of five sets. The big difference with Wimbledon is that it is the only one played on grass. The Australian and US Opens are both hard court surfaces, while Roland Garros in France in the only clay major. While the slow nature of the clay can lead to longer rallies, the grass court provides the perfect base for dominant servers.
And this was a big reason for the record contest between was that both players were better at serving than returning, and both were serving particularly well during the nearly interminable fifth set. They found it extremely difficult to break serve, especially as they grew tired. This makes it the longest match ever in a Gran Slam tournament.
Are we likely to see the longest match record broken?
In short, no! Wimbledon first implemented a tie-break rule once the fifth set reached 12-12 in games, ensuring that something like what we saw with Isner and Mahut never happens again. This has since been updated further for the 2022 edition bringing all the majors into line.
Now, if the fifth set reaches 6-6 in games, a tie-break will see the first to 10 points win.
Isner has a habit of playing in long matches
To show it wasn’t a one off, the big-serving American demonstrated his staying power again to make more history at SW19 in 2018, battling it out with Kevin Anderson for six hours and 36 minutes in the longest match ever played on Centre Court. Isner endured heartbreak on this occasion, Anderson finally securing an elusive break before serving it out to win 7-6 (8-6), 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (9-11), 6-4, 26-24. At the point that Isner served for a 16-15 lead, the match became the second-longest Wimbledon singles clash at just over five and a half hours. However, it was still only half as long as the absurd contest between Isner and Mahut.
Anderson was praised after expressing his sympathy for Isner in a humble post-match interview and later tweeted: “Thank you John for being an incredible sportsman and friend. It’s an honour to share this piece of history with you.”
The second semi-final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal had to be concluded on the Saturday after such a long wait for Anderson and Isner to conclude their incredible match. And Isner took to social media on Saturday to thank Anderson for his words and apologise for potentially delaying the women’s final between Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber.
He tweeted: “Headed home. I appreciate all the encouraging messages from everyone. Congrats to @KAndersonATP on the win and best of luck in the final. More importantly, thank you for your class and humility in victory.
“@Wimbledon see you next year. Sorry for screwing the schedule up today.”
It’s worth noting that another memorable game for Isner came against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who progressed to the Wimbledon last 16 in 2016 by downing the US marathon man 6-7 (3/7), 3-6, 7-6 (7/5), 6-2, 19-17. French 12th seed Tsonga, a semi-finalist in 2011 and 2012, saved a match point in the 32nd game of the final set. The last set alone lasted more than two hours.
If you like long tennis matches then you’ll enjoy this.