Xan Brooks is an editor for The Guardian who was tasked with what would appear to be a pleasant two-week assignment: Live blogging Wimbledon. Then Isner-Mahut happened. Come join him on his descent into hell.
Psychologists may someday study the entire transcript in order to pinpoint the precise moment when Mr. Books lost his mind, but they will also find some moments of great poetry. Like any great shaman who must step outside consciousness to achieve true wisdom, Brooks' journey is one of illumination ... and zombie jokes. Here's a few choice highlights:
4.05pm: The Isner-Mahut battle is a bizarre mix of the gripping and the deadly dull. It's tennis's equivalent of Waiting For Godot, in which two lowly journeymen comedians are forced to remain on an outside court until hell freezes over and the sun falls from the sky. Isner and Mahut are dying a thousand deaths out there on Court 18 and yet nobody cares, because they're watching the football.
Soon they will sprout beards and their hair will grow down their backs, and their tennis whites will yellow and then rot off their bodies. And still they will stand out there on Court 18, belting aces and listening as the umpire calls the score. Finally, I suppose, one of them will die.
5.05pm: On Court 18 a match is not won and lost; it is just played out infinitely, deeper and deeper into a fifth and final set as the numbers rack up and the terrain turns uncharted. Under the feet of John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, the grass is growing. Before long they will be playing in a jungle and when they sit down at the change of ends, a crocodile will come to menace them.
5.25pm: What happens if, from here on in, every single match at Wimbledon heads into a decider and then decides to stay there, with neither player ever reaching an advantage; with the scoreline simply sailing off the map and into the wide blue yonder? Do the stewards lock the gates and make us stay? I've been chuckling over the nightmarish experience of Isner and Mahut, little realising that it has implications for the rest of us as well. We are all involved - going round and round, round and round.
5.30pm: Phew, the Wimbledon Zombie Pandemic has been contained. Thiemo De Bakker comes through 16-14 in the final set of his match against Santiago Giraldo. He will now play (hysterical laughter) the winner of the match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut. Needless to say, it's still going on: 30-30 in the final set
5.55pm: Is it a dream, a lie, or is John Isner really about to triumph in the longest match in tennis history? The American flicks a backhand return up the line to reach 15-40, with two match points. But then Mahut finds the line with a forehand and hastens in to tap away a terrified volley. Incredibly, he saves the second match point too and then pulls level once more: 33-33 in the final set.
So yes, it was a dream, it was a lie.
6pm: The score stands at 34-34. In order to stay upright and keep their strength, John Isner and Nicolas Mahut have now started eating members of the audience.
6.25pm: I'm wondering if maybe an angel will come and set them free. Is this too much to ask? Just one slender angel, with white wings and a wise smile, to tell them that's it's all right, they have suffered enough and that they are now being recalled. The angel could hug them and kiss their brows and invite them to lay their rackets gently on the grass. And then they could all ascend to heaven together. John Isner, Nicolas Mahut and the kind angel that saved them.
6.48pm: ...We're here but we're gone. Is anyone still alive up in the stands or have they now all been eaten? It's 40-40. And that's games, not points
Still no sign of that angel either, the one that swore blind that she would come down and spirit the players off to Disneyland Paris where they could ride the Thunder Mountain rollercoaster forever and ever amen. I'm now starting to wonder if she really exists.
7.30pm: Let it end, let it end, it's 46-all. It was funny when it was 16-all and it was creepy when it was 26-all. But this is pure purgatory and there is still no end in sight.
7.45pm: What happens if we steal their rackets? If we steal their rackets, the zombies can no longer hit their aces and thump their backhands and keep us all prisoner on Court 18. I'm shocked that this is only occurring to me now.
8.05pm: In the stands, a woman is laughing. She laughs long and hard and her laugh is the sort of ghastly yodel you normally hear in antique horror movies about Victorian insane asylums.
8.30pm: They are chanting "John!" because Isner gets to 0-30 on Mahut's serve and is therefore just two points from victory. Chant all you like, it won't change a thing.
9.12pm: Mahut prevails! Mahut wins! This is not to say he wins the match, of course. Nobody is winning this match; not now and not ever.
9.25pm: Last thoughts before I ring me a hearse. That was beyond tennis. I think it was even beyond survival, because there is a strong suggestion (soon to be confirmed by doctors) that John Isner actually expired at about the 20-20 mark, and Mahut went soon afterwards, and the remainder of the match was contested by Undead Zombies who ate the spectators during the change of ends (again, this is pending a police investigation).
Still, if you're going to watch a pair of zombies go at each other for eleventy-billion hours, far into the night, it might as well be these zombies.
Sadly, Brooks will not be on blogging duty tomorrow as the match resumes, but will return to All-England Club on Friday ... when, naturally, Isner and Mahut will still be playing.