French Open: John Isner on wrong end of marathon this time
PARIS — This, then, is who John Isner is for now: the Marathon Man of Tennis, the guy who plays and plays and plays, for hours on end, until the last set seems interminable.
At Wimbledon two years ago, he won 70-68 in the fifth, the longest set and match in tennis history. At Roland Garros on Thursday, as afternoon gave way to evening, the 10th-seeded American lost 7-6 (7-2), 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 18-16 to Paul-Henri Mathieu in the second round, a 5-hour, 41-minute test of stamina and attention span.
This one goes in the books as the second-longest match, by time, in French Open history.
“I just didn’t get it done. I felt like I got caught in patterns that weren’t ideal for me,” said a somber Isner, whose exit means there are no U.S. men in the third round for the first time since 2007. “I wasn’t going for my shots at certain points in the match, and that comes from a little bit of a lack of confidence.”
If the 6-foot-9 Isner, who led Georgia to an NCAA title, is going to become more than a novelty act, he needs to win encounters like Thursday’s, and not because of the duration but because it was a first-week Grand Slam match against a player ranked 261st who got into the field thanks to a wild-card invitation from the tournament.
After finally converting his seventh match point — Isner never had one — an emotional Mathieu thanked the partisan crowd in the main stadium for willing him to victory. Their sing-song choruses of “Po-lo! Po-lo!” — the French equivalent of “Paulie” — and roars of approval rang out after pretty much every point he won down the stretch.
“I dug deep,” said the 30-year-old Mathieu, who hadn’t played in a major tournament since the 2010 U.S. Open because of a left knee injury that forced him off tour all of last year. “I was away from the courts for quite a while, and I came back to live moments like this.”
About 10 hours earlier in that stadium, it appeared a man seeded even higher than Isner would be on his way out: No. 4 Andy Murray’s back was so painful he could barely move, let alone play tennis at the level required to win a Grand Slam match.
Or so it seemed.
For the better part of an hour, the three-time major finalist looked downright miserable. He grimaced. He clutched at the small of his back. He contorted his body. He stepped gingerly, as though barefoot on a hot day at the beach. He tapped in serves at speeds so slow they’d be OK while driving on a highway. He considered quitting.
“Just kind of gritting my teeth,” Murray said, “and [trying] to find a way of turning the match around, because I was a few points, probably, from stopping.”
And then, thanks in large part to a couple of massages from a trainer, Murray began to feel better. It helped, too, that his opponent, 48th-ranked Jarkko Nieminen of Finland, was incapable of taking advantage of Murray’s nearly incapacitated state. So Murray managed to come back to win 1-6, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2.