July 11, 1982: the day McEnroe and Wilander battled in what remained for long the longest tennis match in history

Every day, Tennis Majors takes you back in time to relive a tennis event which happened on this specific day. On this day, July 11, 1982, John McEnroe and Mats Wilander battled in what has remained until 2004 the longest tennis match in history.


What happened exactly on that day and why it is memorable in tennis history

On this day, the 11th of July 1982, John McEnroe and Mats Wilander played what was, at the time, the longest match in tennis history. In a Davis Cup quarterfinal held in Saint Louis, Missouri, the two champions faced on Sunday in the deciding match. John McEnroe prevailed after six hours and twenty-two minutes of play, 9-7 6-2 15-17 3-6 8-6, sending the American team into the final, and beating the record of the longest tennis match, which he held already since his 1980 six-hour and fifteen-minute loss against Jose-Luis Clerc. This record would remain unbroken until 2004 when Arnaud Clément and Fabrice Santoro would compete for six hours and thirty-three minutes at the French Open.

The guys involved

John McEnroe, the new phenomenon 

John McEnroe, born in 1959,  was world no.1 since August 1981, after he claimed his first Wimbledon crown, defeating the Swede legend Bjorn Borg in the final (4-6 7-6 7-6 6-4). The lefty from New-York had amazed the tennis world since his first steps on the tour, in 1977, when at the age of 17, showing up at Wimbledon as an amateur, he made his way out of the qualifications unto the semi-finals.

“Mac” was very talented, his game was based on precision and touch on top of an iconic and lethal serve that he liked to follow at the net. In 1979, he became the youngest ever US Open Champion, defeating Vitas Gerulaitis (7/5 6/3 6/3). He also made quite a sensation by edging Bjorn Borg (7/5 4/6 6/2 7/6) to win the WTC Finals.

In 1980, he played his most famous match in the Wimbledon final, where he lost in five sets against Borg, after winning an outstanding tie-break in the fourth set (18-16). In September, he managed to defend his title at the US Open, edging Borg in the final (7-6 6-1 6-7 5-7 6-4). In 1981, after his first triumph at the All England Club, McEnroe claimed the US Open crown for a third time, edging Bjorn Borg once again in what would later be remembered as the last appearance of the Swede in a Grand Slam tournament (4-6 6-4 6-2 6-3).

John McEnroe

In 1982, he lost in the final at Wimbledon against a reborn Jimmy Connors (3-6 6-3 6-7 7-6 6-4). John McEnroe was known for his shocking on-court behaviour in the well-mannered world of tennis. His constant quarrelling with the officials made him famous in a gentleman’s sport.

Mats Wilander, just broke through at Roland-Garros

Mats Wilander, born in 1964, had been very successful at a particularly young age. In 1982, at Roland-Garros, aged only 17 years and 10 months, he had become the youngest player ever to lift a Grand Slam trophy, edging clay-court legend Guillermo Vilas in the final (1-6 7-6 6-0 6-4). He had also made himself famous for a memorable act of sportsmanship earlier in the tournament. In the semi-final against Jose-Luis Clerc, on his first match point, he reversed a call that was sealing his victory after the umpire had already announced “game, set and match”. Mats Wilander was extremely consistent, and his physical condition was not to be challenged.

Mats Wilanders at Roland Garros in 1983

The place

The 1982 Davis Cup quarterfinal between the USA and Sweden was held at the Checkerdome, in Saint Louis, Missouri. This stadium was built in 1929 and was usually hosting team sports such as hockey, football and basketball. It could hold 18 000 spectators at full capacity. The Checkerdome would close its doors to the public in 1994, and it would be demolished in 1999.

The facts

The Davis Cup quarterfinal between the American team, led by John McEnroe, and the Swedish team, led by young Mats Wilander, was level 2-2 after the first four matches. In the opener, John McEnroe had edged Anders Jarryd, 10-8 6-3 6-3, before Mats Wilander beat Elliot Teltscher in five sets, 6-4 7-5 3-6 3-6 6-0. On Saturday, John McEnroe and Peter Fleming had outclassed the Swedish pair, Anders Jarryd and Hans Simonsson, 6-4 6-3 6-0. On Sunday, Jarryd had finally earned a point for his team by defeating Brian Gottfried, 6-2 6-2 6-4. 

It was now up to the leaders to play a fifth match that would seal the outcome of the tie. In the final showdown between the Roland-Garros champion and the Wimbledon runner-up, it was John McEnroe who had the best start. After he took the two first sets, 9-7, 6-2, he broke Wilander’serve at 1-1 in the third and everyone thought he was cruising towards an easy victory against the Swedish teenager.

But Wilander was no regular teenager. At 4-2, on the edge of defeat, he saved two break points, and then went on to break McEnroe’s serve and even the score: 4-4. McEnroe, seeing victory slipping away from his hands, started to lose control of his nerves and was now arguing on almost every line call. The players then held their serve for the next 23 games, until McEnroe eventually lost his serve and the set: Wilander sealed the set, 17-15. The game was on.

The fourth set, won 6-3 by the Swede, seemed very quick in comparison. In the fifth set, McEnroe relied on his serve (21 aces in total) to put pressure on his opponent. Eventually, the American lefty managed to take Wilander’s serve at 7-6 to prevail in the longest match in tennis history.

The incredible length inspired interesting comments afterwards. John McEnroe, reflecting on the match thirty years later for ESPN:

“I remember thinking near the end ‘If this match is so great, why are most of the people gone?”.

The answer came from the ESPN commentator, Cliff Drysdale:

“People went out for dinner and when they came back they couldn’t believe the match was still going on.”

According to The New York Times, while Wilander simply said “I think I played well. I did what I could, I’m disappointed”, the American captain, Arthur Ashe, was more inspired:

“ McEnroe is entitled to go out and get drunk tonight.”

As for Mac, his comments after the match reflected his relief and his frustration at the same time:

At one point I thought it was going to go on forever and that’s frustrating. It’s tough to go out there against a 17-year-old and not know what to do next.”

What next 

The USA would go on to clinch their twenty-eighth  Davis Cup title,  the fourth in the last five years, defeating France in the final, 4-1. It would be the last title claimed by the American team in the 1980’s, who would not triumph in this competition again until a 1990 victory against Australia. 

The record set that day by John McEnroe and Mats Wilander would be particularly hard to break after the tie-break was introduced in the Davis Cup in 1989. It would last almost twenty-two years, until Fabrice Santoro and Arnaud Clément played six hours and thirty-three minutes at the 2004 French Open. Their own record would then be erased from the history books in 2010 by the unbelievable Wimbledon first round between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, which would last eleven hours and five minutes.

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