Fan Club: Nicolas Mahut

Saturday, May 26, 2012 /by

NmPARIS—With the French Open set to begin, the Fan Club returns with a conversation about France's Nicolas Mahut, who opens against Andy Roddick on Sunday. I'm talking with Cotton Jack, a regular poster here and at Pete Bodo's blog. He lives in London.

*****

Cotton Jack,

I've known two people, both of whom worked at Tennis Magazine in the States, who were particular fans of Nicolas Mahut. Each was drawn to French players in general, and when they talked about Mahut, they mentioned three things above all else: (a) his hair; (b) his serve-and-volley game; and (c) his “Frenchness.” The latter term may be purely American; I'm not sure I can explain exactly what it means.

They were both bummed for him when he lost to Isner at Wimbledon. I can't say I disagree with any of those things, and Mahut's game, especially his daredevil style on grass, is exciting. His match against Andy Roddick in the Queens final one year was a minor classic, and a heartbreaker. I’ve also seen him being not-so-nice to ball kids, which always bothers me, but his friendship with Isner, which seems genuine, has been a nice coda to that story. (The other being that no one I know in the U.S. still calls him "Ma-hut," with the T pronounced, the way most of us once did.)

What is it about him that you like, or that drew you to him in the first place? On a more general level, what's it like to root for someone who is not on most people’s radar screen, or on TV all that often? Do you follow Mahut’s results from week to week?

*****

Steve,

I’ll answer your questions one by one, and hopefully my answers will be a jumping-off point for you as well.

What is it about Mahut that you like, or that drew you to him in the first place?

I first became aware of Mahut five or six years ago, when I attended Queens for a day. Back then a lot of the rank-and-file players didn’t mean an awful lot to me, unless they had played televised matches at Wimbledon. In the ’80s I had grown up watching McEnroe, Becker, Edberg-era Wimbledon. Becker I never liked, and I now realize that my sense of tennis aesthetics was shaped by watching Edberg.

As I watched Mahut play it felt like a homecoming for my eyes: This was Serve and VOLLEY, not the 90’s-style SERVE . . . and then volley if I must. It sometimes seems that Mahut’s whole game is based on making as little noise as possible. A serve that’s quick and darting rather than heavy, followed by soft delicate volleys that fall silently to the grass.

What's it like to root for someone who is not on most people’s radar screen, or on TV all that often?

Pre-Isner it was quite fun: people would take my predictions of deep runs at Wimbledon seriously; since then he’s become one of those players everyone thinks they know all about, which can be a bit irritating.

As for TV coverage, being able to watch him is a treat in itself, one that needs to be enjoyed come what may, and I can get quite relaxed about the result. In any case, if he’s on the telly he’ll be playing someone with a higher ranking and thus probably losing. When he played Isner in 2010 we all remember the fifth set. For obvious reasons, I was especially grateful that the 3rd set had been televised: Mahut played almost perfectly to win it 7-6, hitting 20 winners and making only 2 UFEs. As a hint of the direction the match was headed, both he and Isner hit 9 aces each in that set alone.

Mahut's game, especially his daredevil style on grass, is exciting.

Until recently one of the only decent clips of him on YouTube was against Safin at the Paris Masters. Despite the surface he was throwing himself sideways, making last-ditch volleys. Lovely. I always do my best to point out to people that, throughout that absurd fifth set against Isner, he was still playing his natural game, leaping about. Isner, meanwhile, looked like merely standing up was going to be an issue for the rest of the summer.

He seems to be a well-liked, self-effacing guy: recently he injured himself while being a hitting partner for the French Davis Cup squad, and attempting a tweener while wearing Bethanie Mattek-Sands’ frock at the 2011 Hopman Cup I thought showed that he’s less up himself than many players.

Do you follow Mahut's results from week to week?

Most of the time.... The big problem is knowing what his plans are. Two other players I’m trying to track at the moment are Albano Olivetti and Kyle Edmund. Olivetti has a website giving details of his tournaments, which my French can just about understand. Kyle has a Twitter account, and there’s also a very diligent Twitter account that gives details of seemingly every match played by every British player. But with Mahut I can find myself peering endlessly through the Entry Lists for Challenger tournaments on the Steve G website, trying to guess if his non-appearance at the start of the week means that he's going to be playing qualies somewhere later on.

But I don't know if this contentment with letting him occasionally flick in and out of my consciousness isn't more to do with my relationship with the sport in general. Some people’s emotional involvement with their favorite player seems on the fringes of mental stability; I wonder if somewhere along the line a vacuum is being filled. I find my own life quite full enough of contours, and so, for me, tennis has an opposite purpose, providing a steady flow of interest. There are always tournaments, and they are always being won by someone. By picking Mahut, I haven’t chosen someone to project my own hopes and ambitions onto a bigger screen. Rather he stands quietly in my mind as an unassuming totem of the game, which I love in its messy, diverse entirety, at its ideal.

*****

Cotton Jack,

I guess you could do worse than to get your sense of tennis aesthetics from Stefan Edberg. I got mine from seeing Bjorn Borg running from one side of the baseline to the other and taking elaborate swings at the ball. It's hard to believe a sport could create, or allow, two such divergent styles. There's obviously less divergence now than there was 30 years ago. But that moment of diversity wasn't the norm, either; while most players play something like Borg now, 50 years ago, the majority played like Mahut.

It’s true that there's something different about true serve-and-volleyers, in the Rafter-Edberg mode, and servers who volley, which was what I always thought of Pete Sampras. With the former, there’s a sense of cause and effect, or of something leading to something else, rather than one shot being used to end a point. There’s a different rhythm to a serve and volleyer’s play, and it can be more relaxing to watch—no shot is hit too hard; everything is in its proper place and has a sense of proportion. I was struggling recently to come up with someone who served like an old-fashioned serve-and-volleyer, by placing the ball instead of crushing it. The only player who came to mind was Stepanek, but Mahut is another. There really is no one style of French player, is there? With, say, Americans, I can recognize something in the forehands of Roddick, Harrison, Ginepri, even Isner that's familial. But Mahut doesn’t seem to have any stylistic relation to Gasquet or Tsonga or Simon that I can see.

Interesting idea, that you haven’t chosen someone to project your hopes on, or to fill a vacuum. As I get older, I wonder more about people’s—fans and journalists—desire to know and care so much about athletes whom they really don’t know at all. For better or worse, I’m not sure I’ve ever had that desire. I also haven’t been able to be purely a fan since I started working at Tennis Magazine, which was 15 years ago. Reading about you getting to follow Mahut for your own reasons makes me nostalgic. I can’t do that; I have to follow everyone and think of something to say about everyone. Which, unfortunately, can lead to having fewer spontaneous reactions to a young player, like the one you had to Mahut. As a journalist, you’re expected to criticize a player for not living up to their potential, rather than just appreciating them for who they are. I might be more of a fan of guys like Dolgopolov or Tomic if I didn’t also have to critique them for what they’re doing wrong.

Thinking about what you like about Mahut makes me think about what I liked about the last player I was able to be a fan of, Andre Agassi. He certainly had plenty of flaws, and aesthetically he wasn’t the most graceful. Where the fan of a serve-and-volleyer likes seeing a player move forward, I would say that the fan of the baseliner likes to watch the trajectory of the ball as it buzzes with slice, or bends with topspin, or just flat-out rockets from one end of the court to the other. Or at least that’s what I remember most about Agassi, his flat backhand down the line, with all of that extension through it, touching down in the far corner and flying past his opponent. There’s an aesthetic thrill in seeing that, too, the same way there is when you watched Edberg kick a serve and accelerate toward the net.

Anyway, thanks for your thoughts on Mahut. I see that he plays Isner in an exo set today on Chatrier. That should be fun. It would be interesting if they played it without a tiebreaker. The tournament itself might never begin...

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