Witnessing History at Wimbledon

I have wanted to visit Wimbledon for as long as I can remember. Not being willing or able to shell out several thousand dollars to get tickets through brokers or tour packages, I decided a couple years ago to try to get tickets through Wimbledon’s public ballot. When that didn’t work, I paid $40 last summer to become a member of the Lawn Tennis Association, which includes automatic entrance to the members’ ballot. Bingo! On April 6, I received an email that started:

“Congratulations! You have been selected in the British Tennis Members’ ballot for the chance to purchase the following pair of tickets to the 2010 Championships, Wimbledon.”

Within 15 minutes, I purchased my 2 allotted tickets for Centre Court on Thursday, June 24. Within a couple weeks, I secured a friend to stay with, a relatively cheap flight on Aer Lingus and learned that Queen Elizabeth II would be making her first appearance at Wimbledon in decades on the very same day I would be there! Could it get any better?

Tuesday, June 22

I arrive at Heathrow and head into the city to drop my suitcase at my friend Lindsey’s office.  I spend the afternoon visiting the Tower of London. While I originally had planned to sightsee on Wednesday, after doing some research, it seemed that it should be feasible to get a Wimbledon grounds pass by queuing Wednesday morning. I decide to do that instead.

Wednesday, June 22

6:50 a.m. I head out from Lindsey’s place in Putney and decide to walk to Wimbledon.  It seems like it should be about a 30 minute walk.

Queue entrance
Entrance to the Queue

7:31 a.m. I arrive at Car Park 10 and am handed a “Queue Card” with number 2872 on it, as well as a detailed pamphlet called the “Guide to Queuing at the Championships.”  Queuing is a bit of an art here and something they take very seriously!  Knowing that the first 7500 people or so would either get show court tickets or grounds passes, I feel pretty good.

Wimbledon queue card
My official Queue Card! Number 2872!

7:51 a.m. A steward advises us to have a seat “for a few minutes” so I sit down on the grass, pull out a book to read, slather myself in sunscreen and munch on a breakfast of trail mix.

Queuing at Car Park 10.

8:58 a.m. A steward tells us to stand up and the line slowly starts moving forward.

10:10 a.m. We pass a sign saying we were only 500 yards away!

10:15 a.m. 400 yards away.

10:34 a.m. After a security check and a bit more walking, I pass through the turnstiles at Wimbledon!

10:50 a.m. I make my way toward the practice courts and stumble upon American John Isner signing autographs. I quickly pull out my programme and stick it in front of him, getting the last autograph before he disappears down some stairs.

11:09 a.m. Justine Henin sighting, followed by Svetlana Kuznetsova and Alicia Molik, but no autographs.

Justine Henin
Justine Henin

11:29 a.m. I move on in search of strawberries & cream, slightly disappointed that I “only” got John Isner. Little did I know…

12:07 p.m. After strawberries & cream and a visit to the ATM and Wimbledon Shop, I debate whether to head to court 17 to catch the beginning of Mardy Fish’s match or court 18 to see the end of Greta Arn-Alicia Molik and then the conclusion of a match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut that was suspended for darkness at 2 sets all on Tuesday evening.

12:20 p.m. I go with court 18 and join a queue with about 15 people ahead of me to get into the lower, courtside seats.

1:43 p.m. Success!  I have a seat on court 18 in the front row near the baseline and see the last few games of the women’s match.

2:06 p.m. Isner and Mahut are taking the court.  I’m thinking they’ll finish up the 5th set in about an hour and then I can go check out some other American players on the outside courts.

Isner warms up
John Isner warming up. Yes, he really is that tall.

3:12 p.m. Isner misses a chance to close out the match at 10-9 and they play on.  The games are going by fairly quickly, with a lot of big serves and very few rallies.  Isner is serving first, which gives him a distinct advantage.  The sun is horribly bright and I can feel myself getting sunburned so I pull on a long-sleeved cardigan to protect my arms and drape my brand-new Wimbledon t-shirt over my head to protect my scalp and neck.

5:03 p.m. Isner hits a serve clocked at 140 mph! . I am starving and thirsty – I had planned to eat lunch after the conclusion of the match and am going on only my breakfast of trail mix and strawberries and cream. I brought a bottle of Diet Pepsi on court with me, but try to conserve that, in part because I don’t want to have to go to the bathroom.  If I leave the court, I will never get back on!

Isner 140mph serve
Isner’s serve clocked at 140 mph!

5:30 p.m. Isner leads 29-28.  I’ve been talking with fans around me about possible history in the making. No one knows exactly what the record is for a longest 5th set or longest match, but someone recalls a 24-22 at Wimbledon and I recall Roddick going 21-19 in a match at the Aussie Open several years back. I do the math and realize they have played more games in the 5th set than the first 4 sets combined!

5:57 p.m. Isner has 2 more match points leading 33-32 – the first break points in hours!  But Mahut saves both…I text my friend Lindsay that I am at the longest tennis match ever.  Literally.  She replies that she is drunk after watching the England-Slovenia soccer match.  The steward informs us on the next changeover that both England and the US have advanced in the World Cup. No one seems to care.

6:45 p.m. I panic, thinking my camera battery has run out for this historic match.  Luckily, there’s still the camera phone…

7:02 p.m. Mahut hits the ball into the net and knocks something loose, causing the umpire to come out of his chair to fix it.  We joke that he was just looking for an excuse to get up and move around. I  jokingly asked a steward how much daylight is left, not seriously thinking they could play for another 2 hours. The queue outside of court 18 is ridiculously long but no one is leaving. The stewards say that people in the queue are offering hundreds of pounds just to switch with someone to get on the court.

7:40 p.m. Isner leads 47-46.  Yells of support to both players seem to grow stronger. I am so close to the court, I feel a little self-conscious because I feel like the players can hear me clearly. I want to yell to Isner to dig deep, stay positive, don’t give up – all very cliche and I half expect him to answer back with “yeah right, you try being out here for 5 hours.”   Isner’s body language seems to be getting worse and he seems increasingly frustrated. He even snaps at a ball girl trying to hand him a towel when he wanted balls to serve with instead. On the flip side, Mahut is still bouncing around as if it was the first set!

Isner scoreboard
Isner leads 47-46 before the scoreboard breaks

7:51 p.m. It is 47-all and the scoreboard breaks!!  But in better news, my camera battery hasn’t died after all!

8:00 p.m. They hit 50-all.  The crowd rises with a standing ovation.  Mahut leans on the net and smiles and Isner looks around, smiling, laughing and waving to the crowd.  I have chills, it just all seems so surreal, so special.

8:32 p.m. Isner gets to 0-30 on Mahut’s serve and we start cheering “John, John, John.”  Not to be outdone, the remaining fans who are not starving, thirsty and dying to pee start chanting “Nico, Nico, Nico.”  They seem louder. Mahut holds.

8:40 p.m. A Twitter friend comments that it seems Isner has grown a beard during this match and I would tend to agree – he’s got quite the 5 o’clock shadow going on!

Nicolas Mahut
Mahut takes a dive!

8:54 p.m. I spot John McEnroe and Tim Henman watching from the roof of the press center next to court 18. At the same time, the guy behind me keeps yelling at Isner to serve another 138 mph serve. I really want him to shut up.

8:55 p.m. Isner drops his racket at the baseline and races off the court.  First bathroom break of the set!  We try to start the wave with little success (the girls next me call it the Mexican Wave, I’m really not sure why, I always thought that was an American thing).

9:05 p.m. Isner has another shot at a match point and I am sure this will finally be the end of it.  As he goes back to return Mahut’s serve, I scream for the 492nd time “c’mon John, finish this!”  But no, Mahut holds and I shake my head, saying for the 354th time to the guy next to me, “this is insane…”

9:17 p.m. Even though it seems light enough to play another game or 2, the players converse with the umpire about whether to continue. Chants from the crowd are coming: “we want more” and then “center court” (alluding to moving the match to Centre Court, the only court with lights).  The match is suspended yet again for darkness and I head out to find some much needed food and drink.

Match suspended
The players are mobbed by the press after the match is suspended for darkness

12:15 a.m. Back at Lindsay’s flat, I read internet reports and the magnitude of what I witnessed really starts to hit me. Even though we have Centre Court tickets for Thursday, I know I have to get back to court 18 for the conclusion of Isner-Mahut.

Thursday, June 24

9:45 a.m. Lindsey and I pick up our Centre Court tickets from will call and then wander the grounds while they are still fairly empty.  We get some pictures on Court 2 and check out the practice courts.

10:21 a.m. I have Lindsey take a picture of me in front of my seat on court 18 from the previous day. In all the excitement, I forgot to do that the day before.

Court 18
By my seat on Court 18

10:27 a.m. We park ourselves behind a rope outside of court 18 to wait to see Queen Elizabeth walk by about an hour later.

11:36 a.m. As Queen Elizabeth passes us with the Duke of Kent, we can hear him telling her about the historic Isner-Mahut match.

Queen Elizabeth
Queen Elizabeth walking the grounds of Wimbledon

12:45 p.m. We find our seats on Centre Court (section 518, row ZE – second from the very back!).

1:08 p.m. The Queen enters the royal box.

1:10 p.m. Andy Murray and Jarkko Nieminen perform a very well-coordinated bow to the Queen as they walk on court. I am slightly disappointed with Centre Court. The overhang is so large and there is such a large proportion of the crowd sits underneath, I feel like we are slightly removed from what is happening on the court. It is still a small, intimate venue, with our nosebleed seats being much closer and with a much better view than similar seats at the US Open. It was just so dark where we were sitting!

Murray and Nieminen
Andy Murray and Jarkko Nieminen walk onto Centre Court

1:46 p.m. Murray takes the first set from Nieminen 6-2 and I head back to court 18. Isner-Mahut are scheduled to resume no earlier than 3:30. I figure if I am in the queue by 2:00, I will be in good shape. Unfortunately, the queue for the lower, courtside seats where I was on Wednesday seems twice as long as it was the day before, so I figure I have no shot at getting on if I try for those seats.

1:59 p.m. I’m about the 15th person in the queue for the seats at the end of court 18.  The women’s match before Isner-Mahut is already in the 2nd set.

2:03 p.m. I hear the guy in front of me tell the guy in front of him that the match had been moved to court 5 and they both leave. Panic!  I immediately get on my blackberry, pull up the online Wimbledon schedule (no change shown) and post a message on Twitter hoping someone can confirm for me. But the more I think about it, the less it makes sense so I decide to stay where I am. In the meantime, the queue behind me grows to about 30 people or more.

2:44 p.m. The preceding match ends and I am easily able to get a seat on court 18 to wait for Isner-Mahut to start up again.  The scoreboard shows the 59-all score from the suspended match, so I know the match was indeed staying on court 18 – and I got confirmation from a couple Twitter friends as well.  I feel bad for the guys who left to go to court 5!

Court 18
Standing room only crowd above Court 18 half an hour before the Isner-Mahut match resumes

3:06 p.m. As the ballboys and line judges start to take the court, the court is packed and people are lined up 4-5 deep at the railing above the court. Even the media area on top of the press center is much more crowded than the day before.

3:20 p.m. The wave starts – much more successful than yesterday!

3:51 p.m. Isner is serving first, with the score 59 games all (bringing a chuckle from the crowd!). I am crossing my fingers that they would at least play more than 2 games – seems like that would be anticlimactic.

3:52 p.m. Isner promptly double faults.  Not a good omen. But he comes back quickly with a 130 mph ace and all seems good.

4:07 p.m. Isner leads 62-61. Mahut seems to have more energy and seems to be getting more chances on Isner’s serve.  My money would be on Mahut to win.

4:31 p.m. 65-all.  They’ve basically played another full set now.

4:55 p.m. Mahut has missed a dropshot, possibly distracted as Isner slipped and fell near the baseline.  The next thing I know, Isner has swatted a ball down the line that just barely lands in and he has another match point! We are all on our feet, feeling that yes, finally, this epic match would end. And this time, Isner nails it. As Mahut approaches the net, the line is wide open for Isner and he plays it very cool, guiding the ball down the line for the final winner! 70-68 in the 5th set!

4:56 p.m. Isner falls on his back and the crowd screams and again I have tears in my eyes, realizing the enormity of what I just witnessed.  The players embrace at the net.

end of match
It was a shame someone had to lose this match!

5:01 p.m. A post-match ceremony follows, concluding with a picture of the players next to the scoreboard. Unfortunately for the fans, the officials choose to do this next to the scoreboard on the same end of the court as the stands, so the majority of fans cannot get a picture. We scream and chant for them to move to the other end (where everyone except the media planted on top of the press center would’ve gotten a clear view), but to no avail.

5:28 p.m. I am back on Centre Court watching Nadal take on Dutchman Robin Haase.

6:07 p.m. Nadal changes his shirt on a changeover and the Centre Court crowd goes wild.

7:26 p.m. Nadal pulls out a highly entertaining 5 set win over Haase.  It seems like an incredibly short 5-setter.

8:23 p.m. Lindsey and I grab some food and settle on Henman Hill to watch the end of Serena’s match on the big screen.  I feel bad for Anna Chakvetadze as she looks close to tears, getting pummeled by Serena.

Serena big screen
Serena on the big screen on Henman Hill

8:45 p.m. We are back at court 18, queuing to see, incredibly, Mahut back on court playing doubles!  We are second in line in the queue and witness a hilarious exchange between a wanna-be queue-jumper and the steward, the woman claiming she must get on the court because of an emergency: her 8-year-old son is in the stands all alone.  The steward responds by pointing out the woman was the one who left him there and that he was confident her son is perfectly safe.

9:07 p.m. After one set, Mahut’s doubles match is also suspended for darkness and Lindsay and I head out.  My Wimbledon experience concludes for 2010.

I went to Wimbledon excited at the prospect of being on Centre Court and seeing the Queen. That was quickly overshadowed by the experience of watching 8 hours, 11 minutes of the longest tennis match in history. I can’t say it enough:

Longest. Match. Ever.

As an avid sports fan, I have often thought I was watching something historic and we often hear commentators talk about the historical importance of a win or statistic or other accomplishment. But it is hard for me to say that the Saints winning the Super Bowl or the Lakers winning another championship or a pitcher throwing a perfect game or even a college basketball game going to 7 overtimes are historic in the context of the Isner-Mahut match. Nothing compares and nothing even comes close. I doubt anything ever will.

4 thoughts on “Witnessing History at Wimbledon”

  1. That is so awesome that you got to see the Isner-Mahut match! It must have been truly amazing to be there. I know that feeling of getting chills at what you’re witnessing…but none of the tennis matches I’ve been to have gone to 70-68 in the fifth set!

    Also, I laughed at your comment about the Mexican wave. They call it that in Australia as well, and it makes no sense to me either. What in the world makes it Mexican?

  2. Thanks for your personal account of that great match. That must have been unbelievable. I watched part of it on TV and simply couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I am sure that I uttered the phrase, “This is insane” multiple times myself!

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