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Tiebreak system was set up to avoid Wimbledon marathon

John Isner of the US reacts as he

John Isner of the US reacts as he defeats France's Nicolas Mahut, in their epic men's singles match at the All England Lawn Tennis Championships at Wimbledon. (June 24, 2010) Credit: AP

If Jimmy Van Alen were not already 19 years dead, that three-day, 11-hour Wimbledon match between American John Isner and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut, finally concluded Thursday, might have killed him.

It was Van Alen - poet, musician, publisher, civic leader, raconteur - who invented the original tennis tiebreak system, meant to guarantee that no match would last more than roughly 70 minutes. Or, as Van Alen once put it, "Just about as long as I care to watch people play tennis."

In 1970, five years after Van Alen cooked it up, the tiebreak began to be phased into major tournament play at the U.S. Open. In its current form, after a set goes to 6-6, the first player to reach seven points wins the set (provided he or she is ahead by two points).

The exceptions, in Grand Slam play, remain for the final set of a match - for the men, a fifth set; for the women, a third - at three of the four major tournaments: Wimbledon and the Australian and French Opens. Which gave the 6-foot-9 Isner and Mahut, on the Wimbledon grass that favors power servers, a license to commit aces and service winners for hours on end, from Tuesday into Thursday, until Isner at last prevailed, 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68.

70-68. It is a score so outsized that Isner, a 25-year-old fourth-year pro, predicted, "Nothing like this will ever happen again. Ever." Isner's coach, Craig Boynton, minimized the match's enduring impact to a mere 50 years. Either way, the fairly incomprehensible numbers overwhelmed all manner of "most" and "longest" records.

The 11 hours and five minutes of play more than doubled the previous time record - 6:31 when Ohioan Vicki Nelson defeated Virgina's Jean Hepner in 1984 - the fifth set alone taking 8 hours and 11 minutes. They played 183 games, with only three service breaks, while Isner struck 112 aces and Mahut 103; the previous record for a match was 78.

Wimbledon has been around since 1877 and never has seen anything quite like it, prompting London bookies to set odds on how long the match would go and whether the umpire might fall asleep in his chair. And, predictably, the event generated not only a sense of astonishment but also a revival of arguments for and against the tiebreak.

Commentary insisting that such endless service dominance renders a match humdrum was offset by the kind of reasoning offered by Tim Joyce, writing for Real Clear Sports. Joyce quoted existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Satre - "Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal" - and called the match "unquestionably one of the finest sporting exhibitions ever."

He argued that, "Inherent in any display of intense competition is allowing the struggle to proceed naturally, unimpeded by unnecessary and forced restrictions."

Among those who agreed with Joyce's stance was six-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer, who called the scoring system "perfect the way it is" and even admitted wishing he had been part of such a battle. (Federer, after all, has gotten a good taste of the non-tiebreak fifth set in the past two Wimbledon finals, a 9-7 loss to Rafael Nadal two years ago and a 16-14 decision over Andy Roddick in '09.)

As for Van Alen's brainchild: It was a memorably long first-round battle at Wimbledon between Pancho Gonzales and Charlie Pasarell in 1969 that provided the final push to adopt a tiebreak system. Gonzales had won, 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9.

That stood as the most games (112) played in a singles match prior to the introduction of the tiebreak. Van Alen's rationale for his abbreviated scoring structure was that he "looked at any game from the point of view of the spectator. People want blood! Out at Forest Hills [where the U.S. Open was played then], people get blood with sudden death."

But, at Wimbledon this week people got more than blood, in a way. And the up-and-coming Isner produced his latest in some interesting Grand Slam moments: At the 2007 U.S. Open, only weeks from completing his college career at the University of George, he took a set off reigning king Federer in Ashe Stadium. Last year, he eliminated top American Andy Roddick from the Open in what then seemed to be a serving marathon: 7-6 (3), 6-3, 3-6, 5-7, 7-6 (5).

Nothing close to Wimbledon 2010. "Hopefully," Isner said of this week's unprecedented developments, "this won't be the thing I'm most remembered for."

Except, maybe, for the fact that it didn't kill him.

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