Even after Thursday's historic first-round victory at Wimbledon, even after his name had been forever cemented in tennis lore, Tampa resident John Isner said he still wondered if it was all just a dream.
Isner, who trains at Pasco County's Saddlebrook Resort, won the longest match in professional tennis history. He needed 11 hours, five minutes of match time over three days (and two suspensions due to darkness) before it was locked up. Ultimately, he downed Frenchman Nicolas Mahut 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (7-3), 70-68.
You read that correctly - 70-68 in the fifth set.
Twenty of those games were played Thursday - it was 59-all as darkness ensued Wednesday - before a crowd that squeezed itself into every crack and crevice of the normally obscure Court 18.
"It's so difficult to get your head around what just happened here," said Craig Boynton, Isner's coach, by telephone from Wimbledon about one hour after the match ended. "There are no words. You want to say something, but what do you say?
"At the end, it was relief and excitement. I mean, once it gets to like 24-all in the fifth set, you become numb. It just gets silly. I think both players got past the point of nerves. And I got way past the point of being John's coach. I was just a fan of what was going on down there."
The fifth set alone required eight hours, 11 minutes - 98 minutes more than the longest match on record.
Isner and Mahut combined to hold serve for 168 games in a row before the match-ending break. When Isner's backhand sailed past Mahut - on his fifth match point - Isner tumbled to the grass with part jubilation, part exhaustion. Then he quickly hopped up and gave a bearhug to Mahut at the net.
"It stinks someone had to lose," said Isner, 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds, the former University of Georgia All-American who established Tampa as his residence and training base in 2007. "But to be able to share this day with him was an absolute honor. I wish him nothing but the best, and maybe I'll see him somewhere down the road, and it won't be 70-68."
Plenty of elements in the epic first-rounder will be difficult to duplicate:
•Isner had a record 112 aces. Mahut had 103. The previous record was 78.
•There were 183 games in the match, shattering the previous record of 112 (when Pancho Gonzalez defeated Charlie Pasarell 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9 in a 1969 Wimbledon first-round match).
•The match time of 11 hours, five minutes surpassed the previous record of six hours, 33 minutes (Fabrice Santoro defeating Arnaud Clement in a 2004 French Open first-round match).
Mahut asked for the match to be suspended Wednesday night, saying he couldn't see the ball due to darkness. Isner initially complained because he wanted to reach an outcome.
"I was completely delirious," Isner said. "I wanted to keep on playing, but I don't know why. I wanted a final verdict. But it wasn't to be.
"Honestly, when I left the match, I really thought it was a dream. I didn't think that type of match was possible. I was expecting to wake up."
After just four hours of sleep in Thursday's wee hours, Isner woke up to reality. The marathon match still was there for the taking.
When an opening finally presented itself, Isner pounced.
"What John accomplished was absolutely Herculean," said Howard Moore, Saddlebrook's director of tennis, who watched the match's finish with about 100 of the facility's junior tennis players. "It was a match that won't be forgotten."
"I was happy when they returned (Thursday) that it wasn't decided in the first few minutes," Boynton said. "It didn't end because the guys weren't ready or they weren't feeling like they were yesterday.
"It didn't end on a mistake. It ended on a winner. It was one of those moments that come along in sports or life every so often, where you just have to shake your head. It was the perfect storm. The stars aligned. It was like we were all given this amazing gift."
Isner d. Mahut 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (7-3), 70-68.
It wasn't a dream.
It was reality. And it was tennis history.