Though it wasn't quite the 70-68 affair he had at Wimbledon two years ago, John Isner played another marathon match Wednesday at the Australian Open. The winner of the longest match in tennis history had to go to 10-8 in the fifth set to defeat David Nalbandian in the second round of the year's first major.
The final point came minutes after a controversial call from chair umpire Kader Nouni enraged Nalbandian and briefly brought Margaret Court Arena into chaos.
Isner was facing a third break point at 8-8 in the fifth set when he hit a first serve that was ruled wide on the court. It was quickly overruled by Nouni. Nalbandian didn't realize the call was overruled and hesitantly walked to the spot while he got clarification from Nouni. Once Nalbandian realized the serve was called an ace, he raised his hand and asked for a challenge. The request was denied by the chair. Nouni insisted Nalbandian took too long to make the call. Nalbandian protested, insisting that he took so long because he was confused about the ruling. His protest went unheeded and Nouni refused to allow the challenge.
Replays showed that the original call was correct. Isner's serve was wide. Nalbandian would have won the challenge had it been allowed.
From the moment Nalbandian received confirmation that the ball was called out, he took seven seconds to make the call. His eyes didn't leave the mark the entire time. It was a lengthy amount of time to challenge, but given the circumstances, Nouni could have let it fly.
A quick check of the ATP rulebook shows that there's no specific wording on record about how long a player has to challenge a call. Nalbandian pressed this specific point during his argument with Nouni, repeatedly asking for a clarification on how long he had to challenge. Nouni refused to answer.
The rulebook is irrelevant in this circumstance anyway. Nouni was forceful with his overturn, but with the crowd noise and largeness of the moment, it was difficult for either player to understand what happened. The umpire should have used his common sense, realized that Nalbandian's delayed challenge was made in good faith and granted it. He blew it. And, not only that, he blew it after blowing it. His original overturn was incorrect. Then he didn't allow a challenge of that overturn, a double-whammy of sorts.
He didn't and after five minutes of complaining to another rule official, the match began at deuce at 8-8. Isner won the next two points, broke Nalbandian in the next game and won the match.
"Someone from the ATP, the grand slam can explain to me," Nalbandian said after the loss. "I don't see the video but I don't think it was too late a call. It's ridiculous for this time at 8-8. Can you be that stupid to do that in that moment?"
The match was a tense affair before the call. Isner earned a warning for racquet abuse early in the match and Nalbandian chucked his racquet at the back wall of the court, almost hitting a photographer, after losing the second set.
Nalbandian was angered by the decision, though he admitted he lost for other reasons. Nalbandian had two break points prior to the challenge snafu and hit unforced errors on both to let Isner back in the game. Had Nouni allowed the challenge, the Argentine wouldn't have won the point, he'd have had a second-serve break point. It was a huge call that may have swung match momentum, but wasn't a clincher either way.
Isner stayed away from the fray during most of the argument. When asked about it after the match, he said he didn't really know what happened. "I had a lot of luck today," he said.