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Saturday, Sep 23, 2017
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Isner serves up epic Wimbledon win

WESLEY CHAPEL - At Wimbledon, where the grass-court points are rapid-fire, the normal men's tennis match lasts no more than three hours. This one was nearly four times that long, something akin to a 50-inning baseball game or a basketball contest with 12 overtime periods. This was an unprecedented marathon - not only in tennis, but in all of sports - a taut drama that stretched over three days and was twice interrupted by darkness. By midmorning Thursday, the epic duel between Tampa resident John Isner, who trains at Pasco County's Saddlebrook Resort, and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut had been propelled onto the international stage. "We will never, ever, ever, witness anything like that again," said Howard Moore, Saddlebrook's director of tennis.
Sports fanatics speculated who would be the first to crack. Curiosity seekers wondered whether both bodies could hold up under the enormous physical strain. Simultaneously, there was another rare sight at Saddlebrook. At the height of activity for elite junior players at their summer camp, held at Isner's training ground, every court was empty. The real world halted to witness the utter fantasy of Isner's first-round triumph in a match that required 11 hours, five minutes of court time. The fifth set alone featured 138 games - 70-68, Isner - a never-ending showdown unto itself. "This isn't a normal time," said Olenka Olesnycky, 17, a Ukraine native, as she gathered with about 100 other players to watch the Isner-Mahut match at Saddlebrook's Tropics restaurant. "This is history." The week before Isner, 25, departed for England, he had worked on Saddlebrook's grass courts, stopping to sign autographs or pose for photographs with the breathless junior players. So when Isner rifled a backhand past Mahut, finally ending the match at 3:43 p.m., London time, everyone at Saddlebrook felt a personal investment. They paused for a few seconds, almost in disbelief. Then they erupted. "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" they chanted, then picking up with "IS-NER! IS-NER! IS-NER!" "We're partial to John Isner, of course, because he trains and lives here," Moore said. "But we just watched two incredible athletes do amazing things. The way they conducted themselves on the court, the sportsmanship, the mental toughness and the war of the wills they staged, it was beautiful. "I think it transcends tennis. I think it also transcends sports. I think we witnessed the human condition at its finest. These two guys will have it by their name forever." Isner, known well to tennis followers because of his 6-foot-10, 250-pound frame and blistering serve that has surpassed 140 mph, has established his name for everyone. He's a native of Greensboro, N.C., an athlete who might have selected basketball over tennis had he foreseen his rapid growth (he went from 6-2 to 6-8 as a high school junior). He achieved All-American status at the University of Georgia. Three years ago, he turned professional. He has one career tournament singles title on the ATP Tour and reached a career-high world ranking of No. 19 on May 24. Now he's more than a tennis player. Now he's a reference point for strength and determination. "From now on, I'm going to try harder," said Hunter Levine, 9, of Boca Raton, in his fifth year of tennis. "I don't think I could do what John Isner just did. But I'm going to try. He never stopped trying his hardest." "I can't believe his focus," said Patricia Manent of Spain, who attends boarding school in Boston and trains at Saddlebrook. "Just like I can't believe that last week I actually met him. Now I want to do what he does."

Reporter Joey Johnston can be reached at (813) 259-7353.

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