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Persuasive Games: Plumbing the Depths
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Persuasive Games: Plumbing the Depths

June 30, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Love is Nothing in Tennis

A week after E3 and halfway around the world from Los Angeles, John Isner battled Nicolas Mahut in what became the world's longest tennis match. For three days Isner and Mahut hit fuzzy rubber balls across the grass courts of Wimbledon. It was a first round match, one of sixty-four in the men's tournament, tucked away in one of the many side courts of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.

As befits the oldest tennis tournament in the world, there was nothing new about Isner and Mahut's match. The grass of the All England Club's courts grows the same as it ever has. The materials of shoes and fabrics and racquets and balls have surely improved over the years, but the game still requires only the very basics that Kinect and Move claim to rediscover boldly: men with sticks run to hit balls past nets and one another.

Tennis itself dates to the 16th century, although its handball predecessors stretch back to the 1100s, around the same time Ghengis Khan was born. Like every sport, it evolved and changed over the centuries. Henry VIII enjoyed playing it indoors, as was the custom then.

By the late nineteenth century the sport had moved out onto the croquet lawns of clubs and estates. The first championships at Wimbledon took place in 1877, exactly a century before the introduction of the Atari Video Computer System, a video game system whose hardware was designed for games like Pong.

Yet in the time hence, no match like that of Isner and Mahut had been played, despite the fact that it came about thanks to a relatively simple and obvious consequence of the sport's rules.

Men's matches at Wimbledon are won by capturing the best of five sets, each set requiring six games to a side for victory, by a margin of two. In all but the final set, a tied score of 6-6 is decided by a tiebreak game (itself an invention of the 1950s). But the fifth set is not eligible for resolution by tiebreak, and play continues until one player bests the other by two games.

It was this chasm into which the unknowns Isner and Mahut fell, neither able to break the other's service and thereby tip the match out of equilibrium. The players served over one hundred aces each, evidence for the levelness of their ability. Isner finally bested Mahut with a 70-68 final set, figures that exceed the score at the buzzer in this year's NCAA basketball final.

The Isner-Mahut match exemplifies the familiar unfamiliar. The sport of tennis is well-known and well-explored. Its scoring mechanism is no secret, and it has always been possible for a match to go on as long as this one did. But just as no one had ever found inspiration and opportunity to perform a behind-the-board reverse layup before Julius Erving did in the 1980 NBA finals, so no fifth set had extended as long as Isner and Mahut's well-matched service games allowed.

It didn't matter that Isner was dismissed from the tournament the next day in straight sets, for he'd helped reveal something about tennis far more weird and beautiful than the mere ability to win a match or a tournament could ever show.

Dr. J's famous play had offered a glimpse into virtuosity, but Isner and Mahut's match offered something different and subtler: an essay in balance. Over three days they gave the world a guided tour of the curious collision of the two-point margin, mutually strong service, and closely-matched endurance. A tennis match, it turns out, could go on forever, dancing with itself into infinity like a binary star.

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