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Longest Tennis Match Ever: Discipline of Sport and Time

6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68 Isner/Mahut

Just another tennis line at Wimbledon, all except the 70-68 last set score won by Isner after 11 hours and 5 minutes. The match consumed 46 hours and 39 minutes, the longest tennis match in history. People better situated than I will extoll the vast range of records and accomplishments generated by an 11 hour match.

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I want to talk about what this match teaches us about the discipline of a sport and its relation to time. The vast majority of sports are time or event determined. A football game lasts four quarters of 15 minutes; a soccer game 90 minutes; a slalom lasts a race down the course. The point of the game is defined by the clock. Clocks set the stage, determine the strategy and when time runs out, the winner is known (except for in soccer which seems to be another story).

A much rarer type of sport redefines time and creates unique space and time controlled by the rhythm of the sport. Here the sport cycles through its own unit of competition--an inning, a game/set/match. Each one must be played to its completion. Each player and team must get their full turn. In baseball or softball a team gets three outs--no time limits. In tennis or volleyball, the player/team must win the game by two points--no time limits.If t the end of the required units--nine innings--the game is tied, then the game continues on to the next unit.

The competition does not end until every player and team has cycled through their complete opportunity to score/win. You cannot take away a player's serve or last strike and declare the game over because the clock ran out. You cannot hang on and hope to be rescued by the clock. You cannot husband strength with an internal clock knowing after X minutes you don't need to give any more.

This demands a type of mental focus and toughness that never gives up. These sports require a form of mental endurance that does not assume a clock will rescue you. It means a player or team always has hope because the opportunity to come back will not be taken away by a remorseless clock but only by a player or team's inability to continue a rally.

When the game starts, players do not know when it will end. The vast majority of games end  within a predictable time range. But no clock determines how long an inning or a match can be. The inning can go on as long as batters do not get three outs or the match as long as no one wins by 2 points. When a player is batting in the bottom of the ninth inning, he or she is not denied their last swing because time runs out. A player can always start a rally, catch up and force play into another inning or another game.

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The world of TV has assaulted these games. They take too long; are too boring; the attention span of people raised on Sesame Srteet and MTV won't sit still for endless nuance and unfolding. Volleyball and tennis have streamlined themselves and deployed rally scoring or sudden death to be TV friendly. The sports and the mental attributes are not the same, and it creates very different end games defined by time, not endurance; defined as much by luck as skill.

Games can go into extra innings and no limits exist on the number of innings that can be played. I once had the joy/tragedy (depends upon whether you ask my wife who called the police when I did not come home at a reasonable hour) of going to a twenty inning game with the Detroit Tigers and straggled home at three AM in the morning exhausted. Both teams were running out of players and pitchers, but the game went on until someone won. W. P. Kinsella captures this dynamic best in the Iowa Baseball Confederacy that tells the story of a mythical team and league and game that goes 2000 innings and ends with the Angel of Death patrolling center field. Kinsella reminds us that these sports have their own mythology and power.

Never ending focus; immense endurance; hope when it seems hopeless; never accepting a tie. These define sports whose rhythm is not determined by the clock.



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