Won't someone think of the commentators!

Ten hours into Mahut v Isner at Wimbledon and all the commentators had long exhausted their chat. "We. Are. Seeing. Tennis. Being. Rewritten. Right. In. Front. Of. Us," repeated Jeff Tarango on 5 Live, trusting that the additional feature of his express awe would carry these endless minutes.

“I know," croaked his co-commentator Helen Skelton. "I was up here this time yesterday debating my many Bridget Jones moments and looking down and thinking: isn't he a big fella?"

Tarango intervened, driving his voice resolutely toward the epic. "The record amount of aces. The record amount of games. This is immense . . . This is exhausting . . . Hats off to them . . . Herculean."

It continued: "Insane." And even: "Why is this happening, Jeff? Why?"

Elsewhere, others were showing signs of cracking, too. In fact, at one point John Inver­dale just came out and said it: "How long do we have to keep on talking?"

On the telly (OK - I may have had it on in the corner) his teeth fixed themselves into a grin so queasy, it was as though all the neurotics in the world had got together and drawn it. (Reader, I do believe it's possible that those who gazed on even the infant Inverdale may have found his smile a little seamy.) For relief, the camera occasionally panned away to the faces of two pretty girls in the stands with hair swept to one side like Jamie Lee Curtis in The Nancy Drew Mysteries, and lipstick the colour of artificial camellias.

Back to Inverdale and the others, sitting around on their cracker barrels, spitting into the fire and whittling.

Nobody could think of new ways to describe Isner. Unilaterally, the creativity was gone. In the end someone settled on "He's big but he's got soft hands", which reminded your reviewer of Andrew Castle's pashyrant about Rafael Nadal a couple of years ago, which culminated in the unfor­gettable: "He lives with his family, and his uncle runs a chain of electrical shops, and he's a really nice boy."

John McEnroe was then rolled on - in and out of 5 Live and 5 Live Sports Extra and BBC 1 and BBC podcasts like a tart in a western with nothing left on but a corset and ragged pantaloons - his speech imitating Isner's toppling stagger.

They have to keep playing, went the gist of what he was saying, them's the rules and that's OK-ish, but send in the doctors, what about
Isner's legs? All footballers are wimps! Call themselves sportsmen? These guys have been out there God knows how many hours.

“Don't you think they should be moved to centre court tomorrow and just play in front of the Queen?" McEnroe asked, by now completely insane.

“No," said Tim Henman, gently, in his familiar sinusy monotone as though he's wearing scuba gear or pretending not to smoke.

In the background, on Planet Zorg, Mahut served to stay in the match for the 54th time. "I've gotta get this out," stumbled McEnroe, laughing "Wah-huh-huh-huh-huh" on a descending scale. Inverdale grunted, his voice the colour of the sodden lemon left in the bottom of a teacup.

“For the first time in my - and I'm not sure people care at this point - he had two match points at 32-33 . . . I believe it was 56 . . . it was . . .
I mean, hell."

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals