John Isner, Wimbledon, the Georgia Bulldogs, and the Long March of History

Federer sure whaled that last forehand, though. People are looking at each other and applauding. The thing with Federer is that he’s Mozart and Metallica at the same time, and the harmony’s somehow exquisite.

By the way, it’s right around here, or the next game, watching, that three separate inner-type things come together and mesh. One is a feeling of deep personal privilege at being alive to get to see this; another is the thought that William Caines is probably somewhere here in the Centre Court crowd, too, watching, maybe with his mum. The third thing is a sudden memory of the earnest way the press bus driver promised just this experience. Because there is one. It’s hard to describe — it’s like a thought that’s also a feeling. One wouldn’t want to make too much of it, or to pretend that it’s any sort of equitable balance; that would be grotesque. But the truth is that whatever deity, entity, energy, or random genetic flux produces sick children also produced Roger Federer, and just look at him down there. Look at that.

David Foster Wallace (hat tip: Brian Cook)

Shortly following the turn of the 20th century, back when the University of Georgia’s student-athletes more commonly were known as the Crackers than as the Bulldogs, Morton Hodgson was a four-sport athlete for the Red and Black. He was a forward for the basketball team, he ran hurdles for the track team, he starred as a first baseman and pitcher for the 1908 baseball team, and (despite his parents’ objections) he served as halfback and punter for the football team. Hodgson even collaborated with his cousin, Hugh, in writing the fight song "Going Back to Old Athens Town."

Morton Hodgson began his family’s long association with the University. One of his sons, Morton Jr., was captain of the Georgia swimming team. Another son, Hutch, was a guard for the Bulldogs in their first season of SEC competition on the gridiron in 1933. Hutch’s son, Pat, was an all-SEC end for Morton’s alma mater in 1965, when he earned immortality by catching a pass from quarterback Kirby Moore and pitching the pigskin to tailback Bob Taylor on a 73-yard flea flicker to beat No. 5 Alabama between the hedges.

Six months prior to his death, Morton Hodgson participated in a nine-hole exhibition on the links of the Athens Country Club. His opponent was John Carson, a fellow four-sport letter winner who had earned all-American honors both in golf and in football. Even though Carson was roughly 45 years younger than Hodgson, both men finished the round at one under par, tied at 35.

Morton Hodgson, a Classic City native, had a clay court in the yard of his Prince Avenue home, to which he regularly invited a local youngster to play tennis.

That young man’s name was Daniel Hamilton Magill, Jr.

Big servers No. 23 John Isner and Nicolas Mahut are in win-by-two mode now in their first round match, tied at 6-6 in the fifth set of a match that began late Tuesday but was postponed after the fourth set due to darkness.

Isner has had his fair share of looks at breaking the Mahut serve, but Mahut has only had one break point during this entire match. He did convert on that one point, however, so he could definitely be considered the more opportunistic of the two thus far.

Ben Rothenberg

Like Morton Hodgson, Dan Magill is an Athens native. The most devoted Bulldog of them all began his association with the University as a bat boy for the Georgia baseball team. He managed the tennis courts while in high school, was a varsity athlete for the swimming and tennis teams while in college, and he volunteered to assist Harry Mehre with the football team as a coach.

Magill served the University as sports information director, established Bulldog Clubs throughout the state, and spent 34 years as the Georgia tennis coach. During his tenure with the Red and Black netters, the Bulldog men’s tennis team won eight SEC indoor championships, thirteen SEC outdoor championships, and two NCAA titles. Magill elevated the Georgia tennis program to such a level of national prominence that the ITA Collegiate Tennis Hall of Fame is located on the campus in Athens.

John Isner’s college career was spent at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex. John Isner’s family dog is a cocker spaniel named Magill Isner.

The commentators who keep bringing up how physically exhausted Isner looks need to figure out that this match has been 100% mental for the last five hours or so. The only relevant body part is the heart.

Serving at 53-54, a loose forehand from Mahut gave Isner 0-30, but Mahut climbed back to 15-30 with some brave serve-and-volleying, and leveled the game at 30-30 with his 85th ace. His 86th made it 40-30, and his 87th gave him the game and another tie at 54-54.

54-54. They've practically each won the set nine times.

Ben Rothenberg

At the SB Nation Atlanta rollout party on Thursday, the Isner-Mahut match was being replayed on one of the many television screens at Taco Mac. NCT and I happened to be standing near that screen, and, although it probably was the first time the two of us have had a face-to-face conversation in more than 20 years, we intermittently interrupted our exchange to follow the action, marveling each time at how long it was taking. Mind you, this was after we already knew the result, and the time it took to reach that result. Even in hindsight, the numbers are so absolutely baffling that even "epic" is an understatement; the records for longest match, longest set, and aces haven’t just been broken, they’ve been obliterated.

During our conversation, NCT made an interesting point about tennis, one he has made before about gymnastics. Our brains readily grasp, and swiftly compartmentalize, individual sports and team sports. Individual sports are not easy, but they are simple: we’re each trying to accomplish the same objective, identical yet opposite, and it’s just you and me, and I’m betting I can do this better than you. Team sports are more complex, but they still boil down to the basics. I have my eleven guys over here, and we’re trying to move this ball all the way down there. Your eleven guys are in our way, and I’m betting we’ll move the ball all the way down there on your guys more times than your guys will move the ball all the way up here on us.

As NCT noted, though, collegiate tennis is a different animal, a hybrid competition of team sport played in individual increments, each participant pulling his weight in reliance upon his teammates but knowing all the while that they are not there to lend a hand. There is no lineman beside you ready to offer aid on a double team, no trailing back prepared to take the pitch if the ballcarrier’s intended gap closes more quickly than anticipated, no fleet outfielder to lay out and make the diving catch if his pitcher hangs a mistake too high in the zone. At the end of the day, it’s still just you and me.

Big John Isner was a team player. Still is, come to think of it, breaking out the Bulldog gear and promoting the Georgia brand at every opportunity. Isner earned all-American honors in each of his four years in Athens, leading the Red and Black to a national championship in 2007 and concluding his collegiate career as the school’s all-time leader in singles and doubles victories.

This ain’t college tennis, though. This ain’t a team sport right here. This is Wimbledon, one on one, man to man, you and me.

Isner came out of the bathroom break the much fresher of the two, and reeled off three straight points on his serve, including one that finished with Mahut diving to the center of the court. Isner seems to have lightened up some, laughing and smiling with the crowd.

The new looseness is paying off, as Isner forces deuce. At deuce, Mahut pushes his second serve just long to give Isner his fourth match point, and his first in several hours.

But Mahut saved it with his 95th ace, straight up the "T."

The second deuce saw Isner sail a second serve return long, causing him to bite his collar and look to the darkening skies in anguish.

And on his advantage, Mahut hit yet another service winner to Isner's backhand side, giving him the game.

After the hold, Mahut immediately walked to chair umpire Mo Layani and asked him to postpone the match due to darkness. The tournament referee comes out to discuss the situation with the players, as the crowd chants "We want more!"

It is eventually decided to halt play, despite some clear objections from Isner.

And so with exactly ten hours in the books already, Isner and Mahut will continue their first round match into Day 4 of the tournament.

Just because today's story didn't have an ending doesn't mean that it's not one of the greatest in the history of sports.

Ben Rothenberg

Isner was born on April 26, 1985. Perhaps this is ironic; after the former Bulldog’s achievement on the court this week, some might argue that his birthday ought to be made a state holiday in Georgia, but it turns out that it already is. Confederate Memorial Day, observed in the Empire State of the South on the anniversary of Joseph E. Johnston’s surrender to William Tecumseh Sherman ever since the ladies of Columbus inaugurated the commemorative event in 1866, is on April 26. The day is honored in Athens with the display of the provisional Confederate Constitution at the Hargrett Library. There is, though, nothing at all provisional about the constitution exhibited by the University of Georgia alumnus who was born on the 120th anniversary of the end of the War in Georgia.

Exhausted after his immortal battle with Mahut, Isner fell to Thiemo de Bakker in straight sets and withdrew from the doubles competition with a visible injury from his earlier exertions. This was regrettable, but it diminishes nothing. Few of us will remember this year’s Wimbledon winner; all of us will remember what Big John Isner did. Besides, around these parts, we’ll rally around one of our own, even---perhaps especially---if he falls in a lost cause for which he gave his all.

Mahut made the biggest move of the day thus far in the 137th game of the set, hitting a huge inside-out forehand to go up 0-30.

But predictably, Isner cleared the game to 30 win four unreturnable serves, quickly reversing the swing of momentum in a way more meaningful than anyone could have realized at the time.

Mahut’s 69th service game of the set started with an Isner forehand up the line that Isner thought was a winner, but was called out by the line judge, a call affirmed by chair umpire Mo Layani.

At 15-0, Mahut hit a forehand long for an error at a neutral point in the rally to even the game.

At 15-15, Isner slipped to the ground behind the baseline, but the drop shot that Mahut attempted to take advantage sunk to the bottom of the net.

At 15-30, under pressure, Mahut bravely ventured to the net, and finished the point with a touch volley for 30-30.

Mahut came to net again at 30-30, but was passed by a great Isner forehand up the line to give Isner his fifth match point.

And on that fifth match point, his first of the day, Isner finally ended it with another up the line passing shot winner, this one off the backhand side.

Isner collapsed to the ground in joy, a celebration more pronounced and more deserved than the usual fare saved for winning a slam.

Ben Rothenberg

Right now, everyone wants to claim a piece of John Isner, from Clemson fans to Georgia Tech fans to fans of other SEC schools. But the truth is that he is our ambassador. The athletics program that produced a loss to Kentucky in Sanford Stadium on senior night, a basketball team that couldn’t win a conference road game even against a terrible team, a first-round exit for the five-time defending national champion gymnastics team, and the worst baseball season in school history also produced John Isner, and just look at him down there. Look at that.

Go ‘Dawgs.

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