This year’s Wimbledon is nearly over, but one of its biggest and most enduring stories was written in the first few days. Two obscure players called Nicolas Mahut and John Isner, who have never featured in TV coverage of the tournament before and most likely never will again, have captivated the nation in the most stultifyingly boring way possible: by playing the longest match in professional tennis history.
A nightmarish final set finished 70-68 to Isner, a score more suited to basketball than tennis, after an astonishing 11 hours of play. Or something in the region of 11 hours, at least – the people who keep track of these things had gone home by the end. By the time it got to 50 games all, there was a worry that one of the players might die before it reached a conclusion. Now that they’ve finally fought to the bitter end, I imagine the players will find they’re pining for each other; I’d expect them to become Facebook friends and hold annual reunions.
The absurdly long match was full of “human-interest” subtexts – such as that Mahut’s mum was angry with the umpire for letting it go on so long, displaying the instincts of mothers around the world (“Time to come in now, boys.” “We can’t, we’re playing the longest match in recorded history.” “Not on a school night, you’re not!”); and the umpire him-self, mysteriously taking no toilet breaks, as if he were not human, but a specially constructed tennis-officiating machine, the incarnation of those things that bleep to show the serve is out.
But perhaps the most interesting subplot was that the longer the game went on, the more inevitable it became that whoever won would be knocked out of the tournament pretty much immediately, because they would scarcely be able to walk when they came to play again, let alone raise their exhausted arm to serve. The other players in that area of the draw must have rubbed their hands as their prospective opponents, looking like 90-year-olds playing an exhibition match for charity, hobbled into the 100th game. The longer the match went on, the more pointless it was to win it.
There are lessons here, both in understanding the allure of sport and in reconciling ourselves to the many seemingly fruitless struggles of life. People who don’t like sport often say things like “Why does it matter who wins?” or “Even if they win, they’ll lose in the end”. These sentiments are true, but the joy of sports and games lies in that very thing: on the one hand, it’s of absolutely no importance whatsoever, and yet in the blinding heat of the battle it seems much more important than anything else.
Keeping this apparent paradox in mind is the key to getting the most out of games. They might be stupid, but for the duration of the time you spend busting a gut to win, they seem anything but. And that alone makes winning worthwhile.
It’s also how most things in life work, ultimately. So many of life’s struggles and travails are – without wishing to trivialise the human experience – really stupid. Before we have a mortgage, we envy “homeowners”; once we are homeowners, we spend 40 years oppressed by the existence of our mortgage. We raise our children to think independently, then react with shock and dismay when their rampant freethinking leads them to turn against all our ideas. We spend six months collecting stamps on our coffee bar loyalty card, and then lose it when we’re just one little purchase away from our free latte. And even if everything goes absolutely to plan, death is waiting at the end of it all to topple the tower of our achievements like so many Jenga tiles.
And yet, we throw ourselves into life’s challenges as if we’re on the verge of cracking the whole business. We put enormous effort into racking up successes that will be wiped away very quickly. Why? Because we know that if we acted as if everything was silly and pointless, we wouldn’t have the heart to go on. The three-day tennis game was a reminder that no matter what you find yourself saddled with, no matter how futile it may seem, you have to give it your best shot. Even if you’re wearing shorts and defending break points for the 46th time.
If there’s one thing worse than putting all your effort into something absurd, it’s not putting all your effort into it. As Oscar Wilde would surely have said, had he ever attended Wimbledon. Although I’m not sure he would have watched the whole 11 hours.