June 24, 2010

A Midsummer Day's Dream

Who knew the 4th Wednesday of June could deliver an action-packed sports buffet on par with the first round of March Madness? Riding the train into the city, my morning work load was poised to be neglected with U.S. vs. Algeria getting underway at 9am Chicago time. The fate of advancing past the Group Stage (accomplished twice since 1930) rested squarely on the shoulders of Team USA. ESPN3 bore witness to a scoreless first half with a couple excellent opportunities. The drama meter rose a tad with England taking an early lead. An England win and US tie meant Sam's Army was coming home early.

While the nil-nil score was frustrating, the Americans were outplaying their counterparts and a goal seemed inevitable. Hearts skipped a few beats after Clint Dempsey's golden chance in the 57th minute hit the far post and bounced back to him. But the forward sailed the open net rebound attempt wide. Tension continued to mount as two quality free kicks just outside the box came up short. Time was running out.

All of a sudden, in the 91st minute, Algeria broke free inside the American box. Settling for a rushed header attempt that keeper Tim Howard easily snared, the U.S. released immediately on the counter-attack thanks to a beautiful throw out to Donovan, who pushed the ball swiftly into Algerian territory. He set up Jozy Altidore, whose cross rolled five feet in front of the goal. Dempsey tried to punch it past the goalie, but it ricocheted back to a closing Donovan who struck clean and pure into the net. Bars and offices across the country erupted in cathartic relief.

By gaining the top seed out of Group C, a perfect draw unfolds with the next match versus Ghana (Saturday 1:30 EST), followed by another desirable matchup against the winner of Uruguay and South Korea. A trip to the semis would have the country bracing for an "anything can happen" scenario that would generate loads of media attention, enough to put the NBA Finals ratings to shame. This defining moment sending the U.S. to the next round is what the sport sorely needed to gain some traction. Coach Bob Bradley need only keep his team focused on execution and they should be able to ride this momentum for another week.

In the aftermath of this excitement, my stomach reminded me it was time for food. Grabbing a quick bite, I returned to my desk and scrolled through the Wimbledon scores. No shocking upsets, except for one interesting score - a 5th set knotted at 30-30. Not 30-30 as a game score. 30-30 as the SET score. I cued up ESPN3 again to see this unfathomable score with my own eyes. Lo and behold, UGA grad and 4-time All-American John Isner (always a welcome sight to see college players achieve pro success) and French journeyman Nicolas Mahut (pronounced like Matthew if you took out the t's) were locked in a match for the ages, stubbornly refusing to relinquish their serve. For the next 2+ hours, I watched this battle of wills unfold, transfixed by the bionic arm of the 6'9'' Isner and the incredible conditioning of Mahut. Hold after hold, some easier than others, these guys duked it out, answering the bell every changeover with a boxer's mentality.

To put this in a little perspective, a normal tennis match is played best 2 out of 3 sets. The Grand Slam tournaments play best 3 out of 5 sets. Wimbledon, the Australian and French Open are unique in that they play out the 5th set instead of a tiebreaker, playing until someone wins by two games. Last year's Wimbledon final witnessed the longest 5th set in Finals history as King Roger edged Andy Roddick 16-14. Roddick took part in the longest 5th set ever played in Australian Open history, holding on 21-19 over Younes El Aynaoui.

Today, I watched until the officials decided it was too dark to play and they would pick up where they left off the next day. Mind you, this match was already on its 2nd day of play. When they start again on day 3, the longest match in the history of tennis is tied 59-59 in the 5th set. You read that correctly, 59-59.

The match is already 10 hours long, topping the previous longest match ever by 3 and a half hours (the length of a quite long match itself). Both Isner (98) and Mahut (95) have shattered the previous record for aces in a match (78). The 118 games played in the 5th set alone is more than the previous record number of games for a Wimbledon match (112 games, in 1969). If you were to count the number of sets the two have played, 118 games is almost equivalent to 10 sets of 7-5 scores. So Isner and Mahut are technically in their 14th set of play. That's pure bonkers.

The mental fortitude of these men is off the charts. At one point in the 40's (or was it the 50's?), Mahut chased down what looked like a winner, forcing Isner to hit a short volley, which Mahut rabidly sprinted and full-out dove in vain for, Boris Becker style, throwing his racket and every ounce of determination onto the court. It wouldn't have surprised me if he'd remained on the court, his appendages entering a full body cramp. But he rose and played the next point, and the next, and another 20+ games.

Even more remarkable about Mahut is the fact that he had to qualify to get into the main draw of the tournament. He played two matches last week, one of which he won the deciding set 24-22. Little did he know that "marathon" set would be little more than 1/3 of today's ultra-marathon. And there's still tennis to play.

If I were handicapping this outcome, I like Isner, given some needed rest. Mahut's chance for the upset was today. If he couldn't find any chinks in Isner's serve with the big guy at his most dog-tired, I don't think he'll stand much better of a chance against a "full-strength" Isner. I use quotes because either guy could wake up tomorrow with significant soreness, cramping, dehydration or any other problems stemming from 7 straight hours of exercise. I don't see the match lasting much more than 6-8 games. Isner will take some chances on Mahut's serve with a little more mobility in his legs. He'll reach a couple more balls that he wasn't even bothering to chase at 37-37. But the big fella won't last much longer in the tournament, even though his huge serve is tailor-made for the All-England Club's fast grass (think Greg Rusedski with a little more polish). Expect a deep run from Isner in years to come. For now, he'll be content to be on the winning end of this historically epic match.

Quite a day for sports with contests referred to as "matches." If only more work Wednesdays could be as deliciously captivating.

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