From the New York Times:
The Day They Belabored the Point
By DAVE SEMINARA
Published: September 23, 2009
As the 642nd shot of the rally floated high above her head, Vicki Nelson decided it was time to go for a winner.
Photo Courtesty of Vicki Nelson Dunbar
Vicki Nelson Dunbar played Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon in 1987.
Photo Courtesy of Jean Hepner
Jean Hepner at the Virginia Slims of Indianapolis tournament in 1985.
“I thought I was going to go crazy,” Nelson told reporters after the match. “No matter what I did with the ball, she kept getting it back.”
She added: “It took me a long time to get up the nerve to come in, but she finally hit a short lob and I put it away — forever.”
Twenty-five years ago, on Sept. 24, 1984, Nelson and Jean Hepner, who were ranked No. 93 and No. 172 in the world, engaged in a 29-minute, 643-shot rally that remains the longest point played
in a professional tennis match.
For comparison, during a match last month, Andy Murray and Julien Benneteau had a rally that lasted 53 shots
, and it was the longest either of them could remember playing in competition.
The rally between Nelson and Hepner occurred in the first round of the $50,000 Virginia Slims-sponsored Ginny tournament at the Raintree Swim and Racquet Club in Richmond, Va., with Nelson finally prevailing, 6-4, 7-6 (11).
The 6-hour-31-minute marathon was itself the longest match in tennis history for nearly 20 years and remains the longest match completed on a single day. (In the 2004 French Open
, Fabrice Santoro
defeated Arnaud Clément
in 6:33. That match, however, was suspended by darkness in the fifth set, so the final 1:55 was played the next day.)
Both Nelson and Hepner seem vaguely embarrassed that their names are in the record books.
“Even now, just thinking about it, my stomach is starting to hurt,” Hepner said. “I had a lot going on in my personal life at that time and I was trying to turn my career around and it was getting tougher to do. But I didn’t stay out there for six hours to get attention; I just wanted to win that match badly.”
Hepner, who was then 25, retired from the sport soon after and now lives in Redwood City, Calif. She is a teacher, property manager and competitive chess player, but only rarely plays tennis and no longer has any connections to the professional tennis world.
Nelson, who goes by Nelson-Dunbar after marrying, lives in Medina, Ohio, and remains involved in the sport. Her husband, Keith Dunbar, was a professional tennis coach and their 13-year-old son, Jacob, was the top-ranked player in the country
in the 12-and-under division last year. Their son Ethan, 17
, wants to play Division I tennis in college next year, and their 10-year-old daughter, Emily, has just begun playing.
The rally that put Nelson-Dunbar and Hepner in the record books came at set point for Hepner, who was ahead, 11-10, in the second-set tie breaker, which lasted 1:47 on its own.
“There was tons of lobbing,” Nelson-Dunbar said. “I would try to come in and she’d lob me again.”
After winning the point, Nelson-Dunbar collapsed with cramps in her legs. The chair umpire, who apparently maintained consciousness throughout the 643-stroke point, actually called a time-violation warning, but Nelson-Dunbar pulled it together and got back to the baseline to begin the next point.
How does a point go on for 29 minutes before one player or the other hits a winner or makes a mistake?
“We were both pretty much standing on the baseline lobbing,” Nelson-Dunbar said.
Hepner recalled, “I was just really concentrating and was very consistent.”
Two points later, Nelson-Dunbar closed out the match and apologized to the lines officials for its length.
“I felt so bad for them,” she said. “They were sitting out there so long, and they must have been falling asleep.”
Hepner said she had no idea the match had dragged on for more than six hours. “There’s time distortion when you are in the alpha state — like a hypnotic state,” she said. “I had no idea that six and a half hours had passed.”
John Packett, who covered the match for The Richmond Times-Dispatch, had the foresight to keep track of the strokes, explaining, “I started counting because the rallies were going so long, you had to figure, Who knows how long these points are going to last?”
Packett, who covered tennis and other sports for The Times-Dispatch for nearly 40 years, recalled the match as dull, yet strangely compelling.
“I’m not sure why I even watched it,” he said. “I’m glad I did, since it turned out to be a historic match, but it wasn’t one of the highlights of my journalistic career.”
Hugh Waters, a former tennis coach and the owner of the Raintree club, remembered: “I had a lot of people coming up to me at the tournament saying the match was ridiculous, but I always jumped on them. It takes guts to do what they did.
“People don’t understand the mental aspect of the game: this was a battle of wills and real tennis fans like me could appreciate it.”
Nelson-Dunbar turned 22 minutes after the match ended, but she went to bed without celebrating because she had to play again that afternoon.
Before calling it a night, she called Keith Dunbar, who was then her boyfriend.
“She told me it was the worst day of her life,” he recalled. “I asked her if she lost, and she said no, she won, but she had just gotten off the court. I told her to imagine how Jean felt.”
In her next match, Nelson-Dunbar was ushered out of the tournament by Michaela Washington, 5-7, 7-5, 6-0. “I was really bad — I could barely move that day,” Nelson-Dunbar remembered.
She earned $775 in prize money for the week, and Hepner, who stayed with a local family during the tournament to reduce travel costs, took home $475 for her efforts, or about $73 an hour on court.
Among the astonishing elements to the match was this: If Hepner had won the epic rally, she would have forced a third set, and who knows how long the match might have lasted