By John Feinstein
Friday, June 25, 2010; A19
The best moments in sports are almost always those we least expect: The U.S. hockey team stunning the Soviet Union in the Lake Placid Olympics 30 years ago; Boris Becker winning Wimbledon 25 years ago when he was too young -- 17 -- to claim the world's most important tennis title; Tom Watson coming within inches of winning the British Open when he was too old -- 59 -- to compete for a major golf championship.
And then there are those moments that involve athletes most of us have never heard of and may never hear of again; moments that come out of nowhere and hold us spellbound. That's what John Isner and Nicolas Mahut did the past three days. They began a routine first-round match at Wimbledon on Tuesday, a long way -- literally and figuratively -- from historic Centre Court. They were sent out to play on Court 18, which is tucked into a corner of the Wimbledon grounds and has seats for a mere 782 people.
When they finally shook hands at the net on Thursday after playing five sets and 183 games -- the last 138 of them in the final set -- millions of people around the world were watching and wondering when one of them would finally crack or simply collapse. To put what these two men did into perspective, consider: Before this epic match, the longest fifth set in the history of Grand Slam tennis lasted 48 games -- 90 games fewer than Isner and Mahut played. The longest match in Grand Slam tennis history before this one lasted six hours and 33 minutes. The last set between Isner and Mahut took eight hours and 11 minutes.
In terms of other sports, we're talking about a 60-inning baseball game or a 10-quarter NFL playoff game. In other words, unreal.
While the numbers will be repeated often, they are a small part of what made this match special. There was no championship at stake. These were two little-known players fighting simply for the right to advance to the second round. Isner, who won the extraordinary final set, 70-68, will do well to survive his second-round match on Friday and is the longest of long shots to be playing the glamour rounds next weekend. At 25, he has never been beyond the round of 16 in a major tournament. He came to Wimbledon seeded 23rd -- meaning he was expected only to reach the round of 32.
Mahut, who is 28, was an even longer shot. He had to survive three pre-Wimbledon qualifying matches just to get into the tournament. And yet the two men combined to play a match that transcended any ultimate historical meaning. The quality of the tennis wasn't remarkable, but the tension and grit of both players was extraordinary. Neither wanted to give in to exhaustion or to each other. That's what made it so riveting.
Tennis has become a niche sport in recent years, generally drawing attention beyond its loyal fans only on the final weekends of Grand Slam events such as Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. There are probably no more than five current tennis players the average person came name off the top of his or her head: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick, Serena Williams and Venus Williams. Perhaps you might add Maria Sharapova to that list, but she's better known for selling products than winning titles these days.
Now, Isner and Mahut have carved a place for themselves in the tennis pantheon. Any tennis marathon from now on will be compared to Isner-Mahut. In fact, any marathon in any sport will be compared to what happened during their three days together on court. For tennis, the extra attention, coming right in the middle of the World Cup soccer tournament and right after the sports world had been focused on the U.S. Open golf championship, could provide a much-needed boost.
"I guess this is something Nic and I will share forever," Isner said when it was over.
He's right. And it is a memory all of us can hang on to for just about as long.
John Feinstein is a contributor to The Post and the author of "Hard Courts: Real Life on the Professional Tennis Tours." His most recent book is "Moment of Glory -- The Year Underdogs Ruled Golf." He blogs at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.