The rationale for introducing sudden death in sporting encounters is founded on the premise that viewers, particularly in this age of shrinking attention spans, tire of long-drawn-out encounters. In tennis, the tiebreaker — the equivalent of the penalty shootout in football or a play-off in golf — is the peremptory method for arriving at a solution. The tiebreaker was introduced in Wimbledon as early as 1971. This was a decision justified by recalling an enervating contest between 41-year old Pancho Gonsalez and Charlie Pasarell in 1969, which seemed like it lasted forever. Although there would be no tiebreakers in the final set, their introduction in Wimbledon and other tournaments had an immediate impact on match length. Well, at least until last week. Stretching over three days and consuming 11 hours and five minutes, the epic first-round Wimbledon clash between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut was a marathon that made the Gonsalez-Pasarell contest seem like a 100-metre dash. By the time Isner won the fifth set 70-68, the world's longest tennis match had caught the attention of the world, hitting the band of most popular topics on Twitter, making it to the front pages of newspapers round the world, and even daring to steal a bit of attention from football at a time when the entire planet is waka waka over it.
That a seemingly interminable first-round encounter between two modestly talented players could have captured the world's imagination is a reflection of the truth that our love for sport is not driven by flair and genius alone. But time does usually matter today. The longest cricket Test match, between England and South Africa in 1939, consumed nine playing days — the outcome of a brief and aborted innovation to stage ‘Timeless Tests,' an idea spurred by the desire to force a result and, believe it or not, increase gate collections. Ironically, the farce ended in a draw — else the English would have missed their boat home. As for football, the world's longest match took place last month between two minor football clubs in England to raise money for an Indian charity. It lasted 35 hours, short of the 40 planned, thanks to England's default weather condition: rain. The lesson here: even in this age of short attention spans and multi-tasking, there is nothing like an unplanned battle of mammoth proportions to delight the eye and engage the mind.