Isner and Mahut – Culture Makers?

25 06 2010

I’m not a big fan of tennis – I’ll watch a Wimbledon final, and the odd game here and there if I get a few moments. But I have to say, I was fascinated by the Isner vs Mahut match of the last three days. Not because of the quality of tennis on display (towards the end it looked a little ragged – understandably! – Though I would still not fancy my chances against them!) but because of the challenge it posed for the Wimbledon staff, commentators – the whole structure of the tournament!

In case you’re not aware, John Isner and Nicolas Mahut just played the longest game of tennis in history. They played for a total of 11 hours and 5 minutes over three days, with Isner finally winning 70-68. They broke the world records for:

  • Longest Match
  • Longest Set
  • Most Games in a Set
  • Most Games in a Match
  • Most Aces in a Match
  • Most Aces by a Player

The reason it fascinated me was that nobody knew how it was going to end. That’s always true of sport of course. Perhaps more accurately – nobody knew how to end it.

I was amazed to see the players in discussion with an official at the end of day two, arguing over whether they should stop for the night. Commentators were speculating about whether they would just keep going, or have a tiebreaker, or some other option. Personally, I would have gone for rock, paper, scissors – but I guess that’s why I’m not in their job!

A tiebreaker wasn’t really a plausible solution – you can’t just change the rules on the spot and make an unprecedented decision like that! They had to play on until someone caved, and then review the process afterwards.

And no doubt that is what they are now doing – thinking of new rules or provisions to make sure it doesn’t happen again; putting in place guidelines for the maximum length of a match, or how to end a game in extreme circumstances. Isner and Mahut have changed the face of tennis and will be the answer to a million and one quiz questions over the coming years.

If the rules of the tournament are altered because of this, a number of things will be made impossible:

  • It will be impossible to ever beat their new world records
  • It will be impossible to simply play on beyond a pre-fixed number of sets. There will be some prescribed method of curtailing a game, which all tennis players will have to adhere to from now on.
  • It will be impossible to use hyperbole to the same extent anymore. No longer will calling a 5 hour match ‘epic’ seem appropriate by comparison (‘though if hyperbole were banned entirely, commentators would be at a total loss for things to say!)

Through sheer perseverance, hard work, and refusal to give up, these two men are likely to transform the culture of Wimbledon, causing new rules to be written, and parameters to be set. They didn’t preach against the system, lobby for rule changes. In fact they didn’t even set out with an agenda to alter things. By simply doing what they did to the best of their ability, they will affect change in this area.

As Newfrontiers takes up the baton and seeks to renew culture through initiatives like The Everything Conference there will no doubt be many different ways we will have an effect; lobbying, strategic planning, having influence in high positions. But it strikes me that we ought never to underestimate the power of just working hard, slogging it out, and doing whatever it is we are good at with all of our strength. It changes things in unforeseen ways.

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