Tennis Bizarre series – part 1

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“Tennis is crazy like I said, and it’s great that there’s an end to it because this could have gone on for a few more hours I think.” – Roger Federer after his victory over Andy Roddick in the finals of Wimbledon 2009.

Over the years, the Tennis Gods have scripted matches that have taken human resilience, dexterity and fortitude to unexplored dimensions. The players have brought out the best in each other and we have been fortunate enough to witness countless competitors with a plethora of playing styles. However, no matter how difficult the going gets, inevitably there is an end to it. In the first edition of ‘Tennis Bizarre’ we set the wheels in motion with two of the weirdest yet not-so-well-remembered matches in the Tennis tome. The first one was a Grand Slam final that had the clock ticking for a mere 23 minutes. The other one featured a single rally that extended 29 minutes; 6 minutes longer than the entire duration of the former.

WIMBLEDON FINAL,1922

On the 5th of July 1922, the Wimbledon Final witnessed a 23 year old Frenchgirl, Suzanne Lenglen up against a 38 year old Norwegian, Molla Mallory. Both the competitors were rather established in court-craft. Lengled already had 3 Wimbledon trophies in her cabinet whereas Mallory boasted of 6 triumphs at the US Championships (the only lady besides Chris Evert to have won 4 successive US Championships).

To perk things up a bit, there was some rather unpleasant history between the two. In the 1921 US Championships, Mallory and Lenglen faced each other in the second round. The Norwegian led 6-2 40-0 (on Lenglen’s serve) after which Suzanne was forced to retire on account of ‘whooping cough’. She was widely criticized by Albert de Joannes, the Vice President of French Tennis Federation who said that she was “perfectly fit” before the match and that “She was defeated by a player who on that date showed a better brand of tennis.” This was also Lenglen’s only defeat in professional tennis from 1919-1926.

Both players made it to the Finals of Wimbledon 1922 unruffled. Mallory had dropped just 15 games en route to the final compared to Suzanne’s 18. In fact, the Norwegian had not lost more than 6 games in any of her matches. On the other hand Lenglen had double-bagelled two of her first five opponents. Both players had a strong baseline game with excellent retrieval skills. It was all set to be a mouth-watering clash. The Mallory family was so confident that her husband bet $10,000 on his wife winning.

However what ensued was a sign of things to come.The youngster annihilated the veteran in a 23 minute carnage, 6-2 6-0, the scoreline. It is the shortest match in the history of the Wimbledon Championships (and arguably the shortest match ever). According to a popular report, Suzanne Lenglen was quoted to have said, “Now, Mrs. Mallory, I have proved to you today what I could have done to you in New York last year,” to which Mallory replied, “You have done to me today what I did to you in New York last year; you have beaten me.” Later on, the two met in a tournament in France, where Lenglen once again trounced the 8 time US Champion, double bagelling her in quick time.

 

CENTRAL FIDELITY BANKS INTERNATIONAL, 1984

Next we travel 62 years down the timeline to the first round of the Central Fidelity Banks International Tournament contested in the outdoor hard courts of Richmond, Virginia in the United States. The protagonists were Vicki Nelson and Jean Hepner, ranked 93 and 172 in the world respectively. Little was expected from the match except empty stands, some routine reporters and an eventual winner. However the players had other ideas.

On 24th September 1984, two US born girls Jean Hepner and Vicki Nelson took to court. The first set went Nelson’s way 6-4. It wasn’t great tennis but it sure was a battle of wills. The rallies went overlong and both players kept hitting lobs from the baseline every time the other made an effort to end the point at the net.

The second set was no different from its predecessor. The tennis on display was rather monotonous but as Hugh Waters puts it “People don’t understand the mental aspect of the game: this was a battle of wills and real tennis fans like me could appreciate it.” It was all square at 6 games a piece in the second set as we went to a historic tiebreaker, one that lasted an hour and 47 minutes in itself. After exchanging and saving a handful of set points and match points, Jean Hepner lead 11-10, with a set point on Nelson’s serve. The next point was one that had the whole tennis fraternity on its heels, not because of the velocity or accuracy of the shots but on account of the tenacity and endurance on offer. This particular rally involved 643 shots and continued for 29 minutes, and ended with Vicki Nelson hitting a clean winner to save set point. It is the longest rally ever in the history of professional tennis tournaments. Vicki later said, “It took me a long time to set up the nerve to come in, but she finally hit a short lob and I put it away — forever.”

After arguably the most gruelling rally ever, Nelson collapsed on the court with cramps in her legs. Incomprehensibly, the chair umpire warned her for time-violation. Somehow she continued, bagged the next two points to seal the tie-breaker and the match. The scoreline read 6-4 7-6 (11) against Jean Hepner. The match went on for 6 hours and 31 minutes. It is the longest two set match in the history of our sport. For 20 years it was the longest tennis match ever, before Fabrice Santoro beat Arnaud Clement in a 6 hours 33 minutes long 1st round match in French Open 2004. Till 2013, it was also the longest match to have been completed in one day, prior to the 7 hours and 2 minutes long Davis Cup doubles match between the Czech Republic and Switzerland.

Photo by Not enough megapixels

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