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Waiting for Layhani - as imagined

John Isner and Nicolas Mahut with their record-breaking scoreboard in 2012
by Ben Chatfield
Monday 24 June 2013

Wimbledon-based writer Ben Chatfield puts a Samuel Beckett spin on the now-legendary 2010 match between John Isner and Nicholas Mahut.

In the first round at Wimbledon 2010 two medium-ranked players, John Isner of the US and Nicolas Mahut of France, played the longest-ever tennis match, which lasted across three days. To put it in perspective it was not just the longest match, it smashed all records completely. The last set alone was longer than the previous longest entire match. How on earth did it happen?

As these two men stumbled around the court it became surreal, almost comical. It had a ring of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ with two men locked in a never-ending battle presided over by the umpire, Mohamed Lahyani, the only person who could break their infernal deadlock and declare a winner. 

What follows is a selection of excerpts from the fictionalised play ‘Waiting for Lahyani’.

Day/Act I

At the start of the match the two men are standing near their chairs. An introspective Mahut is peering into his cap. As they prepare for the coin toss Isner asks him what he can see. “Nothing,” he says. Isner looks in too and he nods in agreement. They go back to their chairs and Isner, wanting to change shoes, is struggling to remove his trainer, “Nothing to be done”, he says.

As the game goes on they become weary. They don’t know what day it is. Time is fractured and eerily non-existent. All they know is that they are to ultimately meet at a chair. The umpire’s chair.

At a change of ends they discuss dreams. Isner eats a carrot.

Day/Act II

Mahut wonders if they are trapped in a strange sense of time. Although there is notional evidence of linear progression, they are basically living the same day over and over. Death is the only eternal event. Isner is losing his mind and tells Mahut about what happened to him the night before when he was set upon and left in a ditch on Wimbledon Common.

The game trundles on into its fifth set.

At 7-8 one fan leaves the crowd and we see him go, as he walks across the front of the stage. The two players watch him in silence. He is going to watch the England v Slovenia World Cup game in ‘the village’.

At 10-9 Isner stands on the verge of victory when a Mahut double-fault gives him a match-point. But Mahut serves another ace.

Then they try and sleep and Mahut sings Isner a lullaby by his chair.

At 33-32 Isner mishits a backhand to give himself another two match-points. The crowd roar Mahut on, “Allez” and “Oui monsieur”. Boldly he holds on.

Lahyani won’t end it today, but maybe tomorrow.

At one point the net breaks and Lahyani gets down from the chair to mend it. Someone in the crowd yells, “Must be nice to get out of the chair, umpire?” This is the only time we see Lahyani.

Every time the score is read out a chuckle goes through the crowd.

Four hours later the fan who had gone in to the village to watch the football returns and takes a seat. The score is 28-27.

At 50-50 the scoreboard breaks.

At 58-58 they both take a bathroom break. We hear them talking whilst standing next to each other at the urinal. The content of the conversation is unintelligible.  

At 59-58 Isner has match point when Mahut double faults. But Mahut serves an ace.

The crowd are chanting ‘We want more’. Isner wants to continue. Mahut can’t see the ball.

Night falls, the curtain is drawn. Two sets all.

“Something surely has to give?” Boris Becker.

“This could take six months out of their careers. I’m very proud to be a tennis player.” John McEnroe

Roger Federer says he does not know whether to laugh or cry.

Day/Act III

We see a press cutting from The Guardian which is read out dramatically: “The question that flickered through most minds of those in attendance and those watching on TV was not really who was the better player but what was driving them on. As it turned from absorbing to surreal and continued on towards unbelievable, their struggle took on a life of its own. Who had seen anything on a sporting field to match it for the sheer quality of its weirdness? You have to ask, also, what is at stake?”

Starts at 59-59. Doctors on standby.

“This will never happen again,” Isner says.

They resume playing and the level is still high.

A ball boy arrives, says Lahyani sent him saying it will end not tonight, but “surely tomorrow”.

This proves wrong as, another hour on, it finally ends. 

We hear Lahyani read out the score. Isner consoles Mahut. The two men seem bemused, then embrace and hug and cling to each other. They sit in their chairs, staring straight ahead. Isner gives a muted on-court interview.

“I guess it is something Mahut and I will share forever, really. I don’t think I’ve ever said five words to the guy prior to our match, not that he’s a bad guy, it just is what it is. Now, when I do see him in the locker room at other tournaments, we’ll always be able to share that. I’m kind of glad it happened.”

Mahut just stares straight ahead. After a while both men walk off court to an enormous standing ovation.

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