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Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Medichini

Whirled cup

Sports | Soccer's defending world champions never looked the part in South Africa

Issue: "Tilting at turbines," July 17, 2010

The Italians entered the 2010 World Cup in South Africa as defending champions, pegged by oddsmakers as the seventh-most-likely country to win it all. But the once-proud team left soccer's grandest stage strikingly unlike champions. Italian star Gennaro Gattuso, who announced his retirement following an improbable knockout defeat to Slovakia, decried the team's precipitous fall from glory: "When we won the World Cup in 2006, they awarded us the Cavalier of Labor. Now they will make us Cavaliers of Shame-and correctly so. We have touched bottom."

And Italy was not the only European power to fly home early with proverbial tail tucked tightly between legs. France, the World Cup champion from 1998 and runner-up in 2006, appeared disinterested in its listless defeats to Mexico and South Africa. A player mutiny against coach Raymond Domenech left the French unprepared and without football director Jean-Louis Valentin, who walked off the job after saying he was "ashamed" of the team.

Never in World Cup history have the two preceding tournament finalists failed to collect a single victory. But France and Italy did more than just struggle athletically. They behaved terribly. They embarrassed their countrymen. Sponsors pulled funding. Political leaders demanded explanations.

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So extreme and complete were the respective failures that questions must emerge about the future balance of power in international soccer. France and Italy did not look the part of champions in a down year. They looked more like irrelevant has-beens, teams without answers or much concern to try and find them. Might soccer cease to be Europe's game? Up-and-comers like Japan, South Korea, and the United States have reason to hope.

Marathon match

When American John Isner ripped a backhand winner to defeat Frenchman Nicolas Mahut in the first-round at Wimbledon, both players collapsed on the court in exhaustion. Their match had taken more than 11 hours over three days to finally yield a winner. The fifth set alone, which cannot end in a tiebreak, lasted more than eight hours and 138 games before Isner broke Mahut's serve for a 70-68 victory.

All told, the record-setting match included 183 games and 215 aces, to go along with just three breaks of serve. "I've never been this exhausted," said Isner, who predicted nothing comparable would ever happen again. The 19th-ranked player lost his subsequent second-round match in straight sets in just 75 minutes. He pulled out of doubles competition.

The Isner-Mahut match was the longest in professional tennis history, and not just tennis. Here's a look at how it stacks up against other marathon sports contests.

Men's tennis: John Isner def. Nicolas Mahut (2010) -- 11 hours, 5 minutes
Triple A Baseball: Pawtucket Red Sox def. Rochester Red Wings (1981) -- 8 hours, 25 minutes
MLB: Chicago White Sox def. Milwaukee Brewers (1984) -- 8 hours, 6 minutes
Women's tennis: Vicki Helson def. Jean Hepner (1984) -- 6 hours, 31 minutes
NHL: Detroit Red Wings def. Montreal Maroons (1936) -- 176 minutes of game play
NFL: Miami Dolphins def. Kansas City Chiefs (1971) -- 82 minutes of game play
NBA: Indianapolis Olympians def. Rochester Royals (1951) -- 4 hours (six overtimes)

Email Mark Bergin


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