Master of the Improbable

by: Peter Bodo | July 17, 2013

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If you add up all the games Nicolas Mahut played in three matches last Sunday in Newport, the total is 72. 

That’s just four more games than Mahut won in one historic set at Wimbledon three years ago, when he lost to John Isner, 70-68 in the fifth. But it’s still more than twice as many as Fabio Fognini had collect to earn in his three-set, knock-down, drag-out, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 win over Philipp Kohlschreiber on Sunday in Stuttgart, Germany.

Which means it was a whole lot of tennis.

The difference, of course, is that Mahut’s total represents three matches that he played in one day—a semifinal win over Michael Russsell, a final-round triumph over former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, and a doubles semifinal win, with his French countryman Edouard Roger-Vasselin, over Brazil’s Marcelo Demoliner and Andre Sa (all because of rain, which also pushed the doubles final—which Mahut also won—to Monday morning). 

Call it payback, although just who’s doing the paying is open to question. To me, it just seems like some weird manifestation of fate.

To say that Mahut gets himself into one unbelievable situation after another by now seems an understatement. An obscure journeyman until that epic, 11-hour-and-five-minute loss to Isner transformed him into someone more legendary, Mahut has evolved into one of the most intriguing characters on the ATP tour. He wrote a compelling book (French only) detailing, among other things, what a heartbreak it was to lose that match to Isner, and no sooner had the ink dried than he had to go out and play the same guy, at the same tournament, the very next year (Isner won again, this time in straight sets with considerably less drama).

It was a pity, because Mahut had by then improved his ranking from No. 148 (at the time of that fateful match) to No. 94, which affords direct entry into Grand Slams. But Mahut slumped, and by the time Roland Garros rolled around this year, he had slipped all the way back to No. 173 (he would fall out of the Top 200 shortly thereafter), at which point he got famous again—at least in his native France.

Mahut and his countryman Michael Llodra made it all the way to the finals of the French Open. Unseeded, they kicked and clawed their way all the way to the final, where they faced the mighty, top-seeded team of Mike and Bob Bryan. After exchanging tight 6-4 sets, they were obliged to decide the match in a third-set tiebreaker—in which a Mahut unforced error basically lost it for the French.

We last saw Mahut, lips trembling and tears streaming down his face, oblivious of the consolation Llodra was trying to provide in the minutes right after the loss. The images were part of the 24-hour television news cycle all over France. Mahut had just missed becoming a Grand Slam champion by a whisker. Once again, he fell just short at a career moment.

Just weeks later, Mahut won on grass in s’-Hertogenbosch, clubbing world No. 10 Stan Wawrinka into submission in straight sets. By then, the theme was obvious. This unpredictable guy, who always looks like he just woke up and whose eyes seem always to be bugging out at some implausible sight, is the master of the improbable. It’s almost like he’s some sort of ultimate recreational player—his game is sufficiently incomplete to support the analogy—striving and struggling, the game’s own version of the phoenix, forever rising from his own ashes when all seems lost to obtain new life and glory. 

Although Mahut had an indifferent Wimbledon, at Newport he became the first ATP player this year to win both the singles and doubles at the same event—never mind the feat of knocking off a semifinal as if it were a pre-game snack.

"You guys know I can play a long time, stay a long time on the court," Mahut said, grinning at reporters as he prepared to top off his singles conquests with a doubles triumph. "I would like to tell you I'm not tired. I'm tired, but I have the trophy in my bag, so I just need to get ready to play one more match."

“I have the trophy in my bag. . .” I like that. You know the guy could have gone out and played another 10 sets, not the mere two that ensured his team entry into the doubles final.

You also could say that Mahut had this day in Newport coming, unlikely as it might still seem. What a bonanza it must have been for the journeyman in less than 24 hours—how could you not be happy for this guy?  

More interesting, I think, is how his marathon battle with Isner way back in 2010 proved to be career-altering in some surprising ways. It made Mahut a personage, and while he’s struggled to keep up with his notoriety, he’s also benefited from it that newfound status; it’s always there like some kind of secret fuel. And don’t think the guys he plays aren’t aware of this x-factor.

Mahut’s brush with fame made him a little larger than life, and it’s given him a kind of pride and standing—it couldn’t have happened to a more unassuming guy—that keeps working for him. It demands that he live up to it, even when his game says he can’t. He can’t run away from being Nicolas Mahut. It causes him problems, but it also lifts him up. And none of this would have happened if he had lost (or won) that Isner match in 2010 in a more conventional way. 

You can wonder about lots of things when you contemplate Mahut’s career, which is that of a somewhat incomplete but always dangerous player, but the most relevant question anyone can ask in regard to him is, “What’s next?”

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