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Wimbledon marathon has no finish line

It became a tennis match unwilling to end.

At 9:09 p.m. Wednesday, at the most magical Grand Slam, the slugfest still was not over but had shattered history.

Seven hours and six minutes and 118 games in the fifth set of a match that began a day earlier, John Isner, a lanky Georgian who loves college football, and France's Nicolas Mahut, with the savoir faire to wear chunky jewelery around his neck, would not give in.

They broke the record for longest match ever -- a match that is already in the record book with the most games (163) and most aces.

The longest match (10 hours and counting) and the longest set in tennis history closed down for the night. But only for the night.

The scoreboard told the story of Isner versus Mahut: 6-4, 3-6, 6-7(7), 7-6 (3), 59-59, a story looking for an end as it goes into a third day.

By the time you read this, the Isner-Mahut match may at last have a winner. Then again, they may still be slogging it out.

Two World Cup soccer matches, one involving the United States and one England, had started and ended and Isner and Mahut played on.

Andy Roddick and Venus Williams began and ended their second-round matches Wednesday and Isner and Mahut played on.

President Barack Obama even addressed the nation announcing the firing of the country's top battlefield general, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Yet more people seemed glued to the war at Wimbledon.

Then, as the last light of the sun fell away, play was suspended, Mahut telling the referee it was time. Isner was shaking his head, wanting to play on, but the decision was made.

And with that, there were no more "we want more" chants from the packed crowd at Court 18, no more watching two players dripping in sweat, hitting balls no one thought they could reach, fatigue playing tricks on every move they made -- a whiff here, an ace there, a stumble here, then diving flat out face first into the grass in a desperate bid to reach a shot.

"Nothing like this will ever happen again ever," Isner said, speaking to a BBC on-court announcer. "I don't know what to say. He's serving fantastic, I'm serving fantastic. We both couldn't agree to play so they canceled."

Mahut agreed but was ready to call it a day.

"Everybody wants to see the end," he said, "but come back tomorrow. We played for too long."

This match began on Tuesday but by the time Isner won the fourth set tiebreaker, darkness had taken over and play was suspended. It had been hardly notable -- a first-round match that would finish off in 20 or 30 minutes on Wednesday. Isner, after all, is seeded 23rd here and Mahut, ranked 148th in the world, had to win three qualifying matches just to get into the main draw.

Instead, they played into greatness.

Before Wednesday was over, Isner's 98 aces and Mahut's 95 each shattered the old single record of 78.

The epic battles between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl, even last year's Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick, were now consigned to footnotes.

Even the previous record-holder -- the 2004 French Open match between Frenchmen Fabrice Santoro and Arnaud Clement -- of six hours and 33 minutes was gone. But that was on the languidly slow French red clay.

This tennis was less complicated. It was two men smashing off aces and moving on and on and on.

Isner is 6-feet-9 and by about the 100th game of the fifth set was left almost motionless on many points. He would crack a serve and hope for the best.

While the two may not have agreed about stopping play, minutes earlier, at 58 games all, they agreed on one thing. A bathroom break. And no one could blame them. They had played 410 minutes of tennis nonstop by then.

And if it wasn't aesthetically pleasing, there was never a lack of effort.

On the second point of the 117th game Mahout threw his whole body in the direction of an Isner volley. He didn't get the ball back but Isner applauded and where he found the energy to put his hands together, no one was quite sure.

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