Ten years since Isner-Mahut: The author inspired by Wimbledon history and Pong creator on the classic video game

By Samuel Draper
April 20 2020, 08.35

Back and forth, wondering when an endlessly equal match-up will end – at least Pong only went up to 11.

When John Isner and Nicolas Mahut met at Wimbledon 10 years ago, they also went up to 11, in terms of hours played, as they contested the longest tennis match in history.

They traded 980 points across 183 games on Court 18, capturing the world’s attention – and inspiring an author who seized upon the moment.

Owen Prell’s debut novel Chance to Break is set against the backdrop of the 2010 Championships, particularly Isner’s absurd win. 

“It stopped being about tennis and started being about something else,” Prell told SWL.

“For me, it became about life. Life goes on and on, and you don’t know when it’s going to end.”

Nothing will beat that 70-68 final set after the All England Club introduced a tiebreak at 12-all for last year’s Championships, a switch which came after Isner lost to Kevin Anderson 26-24 in the decider of the 2018 semi-final.

“I started watching that match, and selfishly I got kind of worried they would eclipse the Isner-Mahut match,” said Prell.

“I was like ‘No you can’t, that’s my match!’

“So I was pleased that they didn’t eclipse it in that match, but now they’ve changed the rules so it’s officially the longest.”

With no Wimbledon this summer for the first time since WWII, tennis fans will have plenty of time to kill.

“We’re all going to be missing tennis,” said Prell.

“But I think of sacrifices made during World War Two. If we have to give up tennis for a while to get through this, that’s ok. But it will be back.”

The ITF has a free app for the rules of tennis if you want to recap the latest regulations before the sport is back.

There are also hundreds of videos, articles and online courses available through the ITF platform, which is free for new registrations.

ITF Communications said: “Tennis is a year-round global sport, so many within the community are facing considerable adjustments to their daily life.

“It is important the sport continues to share ways to keep minds and bodies active as far as possible, while staying connected during this time.”


Another way to stay connected is through gaming, and no tennis game has stuck in the memory as much as 1972’s Pong – even though creator Al Alcorn had no plan to make it feel like a specific sport.

“It was just a ball with two paddles. Make of that what you will. There’s never been a simpler game,” Alcorn told SWL.

Although he got into university by being a football player – “a real dumb lineman” by his own admission – he quit after a week to focus on being an engineer.

The move served him well in gaming and as part of the team at Apple who got video into computers as a data type: something which had never been done before.

“Now the internet is clogged with videos of puppies and kittens, all because of that,” said Alcorn.

The success of multi-player games, like Eports contests filling stadiums globally, all began with two-player Pong. 

“One time, at a local convention of classic video games, someone had an original Atari arcade Pong machine,” said Alcorn.

“A young man about 10 years old was playing by himself, so I went up to the game and told him ‘I’ll play. At one point, I was the best Pong player in the world. I was the only Pong player in the world’.”

While the top tennis players are absent from SW19 this summer – and there’ll be no look back at 10 years since once of sport’s most iconic duels – 2020 is a new chance to abide by the rules. Or make your own.

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