According to Mathieu: Frenchman in sunset of obstacle-filled career

by: Ravi Ubha | May 21, 2015

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A Davis Cup loss has haunted Paul-Henri Mathieu for much of his otherwise commendable career. (AP)

The eight men’s wild cards at the French Open, similar to the three other majors, are a mixture of youth and experience, with most coming from the host nation. 

Frances Tiafoe, just 17, garners much attention, especially from a U.S. perspective. Thanasi Kokkinakis, according to many, joins Tiafoe in having a future as bright as the lights illuminating the Eiffel Tower at night.

Nicolas Mahut rests at the other end of the career spectrum. The Frenchman has, over the past five years, become much more than the vanquished in the longest tennis match of all time.      

Then there is Mahut’s good friend and fellow 33-year-old, Paul-Henri Mathieu, whose matches at Roland Garros are habitually accompanied by cries of “Allez, Paulo” from the stands. Mathieu hopes the upcoming fortnight isn’t his last in Paris, but given his age and injury history, he knows there’s no guarantee he’ll return in 2016. 

“I want to enjoy it and will play it like it’s my last one,” Mathieu, ranked No. 123, said in a telephone interview.

The tennis gods perhaps owe Mathieu a little.  

If you thought Mahut had it tough by being on the wrong end of John Isner’s 70-68 fifth set at Wimbledon in 2010, one can argue with success that the agony of that day for the serve-and-volleyer pales in comparison to Mathieu’s career-long plight, both on and off the court.

Tennis aficionados will recall that Mathieu, once a top prospect himself, handed Pete Sampras the last loss of his career and extended Rafael Nadal to four hours and 53 minutes of action at the 2006 French Open—the Spaniard’s longest ever match at Roland Garros (and one further marked by Nadal taking a mid-game medical timeout when a piece of banana got stuck in his throat). Mathieu also defeated Isner 18-16 in the fifth set at Roland Garros in 2012. 

Four titles and rising to No. 12 in the world add to his career highlights. 

Yet to this day, Mathieu might be best known for being the lone player to lose a decisive fifth match in a Davis Cup final after holding a two-set lead. It happened in France in 2002 against Russia’s Mikhail Youzhny on indoor red clay in Bercy, a neighborhood roughly eight miles east of Roland Garros.  

Mathieu was then the French No. 4 and surging, having won back-to-back titles in, ironically, Russia and France. He downed seven Top 40 players during the hot spell, including Grand Slam champions Marat Safin, Gustavo Kuerten, and Thomas Johansson. 

French captain Guy Forget stuck with the 20-year-old, who was contesting his first ever Davis Cup series, in the final match despite an opening-day loss to Safin and having Nicolas Escude on his bench. Escude won a live fifth match in the 2001 final against Australia, though he thrived in faster court conditions.  

Mathieu said he expected to face Yevgeny Kafelnikov, even though the 1996 French Open champion lost a long doubles tussle the day before and fell in his singles match to Sebastien Grosjean on Friday. But Shamil Tarpischev—yes, he was also the Russian captain in those days—made a bold move and called upon Youzhny, another 20-year-old.

“Misha struggled for two sets, then he started to play really good,” said Mathieu. “Maybe I panicked a bit, but it was the first series I played in the Davis Cup. The week before I thought I wouldn’t be playing.

“He had the luck. It was complex and complicated.”

Youzhny prevailed 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4, less than three months after his father died. 

The Russian's stature grew, and he gained a reputation for being a fifth-set warrior. Perhaps spurred by his historic achievement, Youzhny boasts a 21-13 record in fifth sets.  

For Mathieu, the loss stuck to him like gum on a shoe, reminders never far away. 

“The first week or two after were very difficult, but then I digested it pretty quickly,” he said. “It’s true that the press didn’t digest it very quickly. They brought it up, brought it up, brought it up over the years. That—that was very difficult.

“I didn’t lose the match two, two and two. But afterwards I thought, if I would have lost two, two and two, it would have been easier for the media. I didn’t understand this.

“Of course it affected me because even three, four, five years later, they still talked about [the match]. I didn’t understand the proportion of it all, of what it became.”

Mathieu said he never pondered what would have happened if he beat Youzhny, but he’s thought about what would have transpired if he simply hadn’t played that day. 

He failed to win a match in 2003 until the end of April. 

A Davis Cup hangover, insisted Mathieu, had nothing to do with it. He sustained a stomach injury and skipped the first two-and-a-half months of the new season. 

“I had bad luck after the Davis Cup with injuries,” he said.

Injuries became an almost ever-present presence in Matheiu’s life. In 2004 he was sidelined for about seven months due to his wrist; a groin issue hampered him in 2009 and into 2010; and late in 2010 he hurt his left knee, a saga that forced him to skip all of 2011 and nearly ended his career. Altogether, he has undergone three knee surgeries. 

His ability to bounce back is one of the reasons why another of his good friends, Arnaud Di Pasquale, calls Mathieu mentally tough. This despite hovering around the .500 mark in finals and fifth sets, and never reaching a Grand Slam quarterfinal. (Mathieu is 0-for-6 in Grand Slam fourth rounds.) 

“He’s been reproached a lot for not having the mental aspect,” Di Pasquale, the national technical director of the French Tennis Federation, said in a telephone interview. “Me, I think one of his strengths is the mental aspect. 

“From that one match against Youzhny, people drew conclusions, which were very, very hard for him. He accepted that right after. It was the people that continued to talk about it.” 

Outside the Top 700 in February 2012, it wasn’t long before things began to look up for Mathieu again. His son, Gabriel, was born that March, and Mathieu outlasted Isner at the French as a wild card in nearly six hours.

“[The loss to Youzhny] gained him a reputation as a choker, a reputation which has stalked him for a decade but now, finally, [it] can surely be erased,” was how one tennis correspondent at the time contextualized the victory over Isner. 

Mathieu’s ranking climbed to No. 58 by the time the 2012 season ended, and he believed he wasn’t done there: He was convinced the progression would continue.  

But in December, his partner, Quiterie Camus, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. 

“It was a disaster—for her and for the family,” said Mathieu. “I said, ‘Why? Why us again? Why her?’ It’s really difficult to describe what you feel. I honestly thought, ‘Why keep playing,’ because every time I come back, there is something happening and you have to fight through it. 

“This was the toughest situation because I didn’t have the cards in my hands. I was just watching from the side and trying to be positive.”

Mathieu, at the urging of Camus, continued to ply his trade. But his heart and head weren’t on court.  

“I can tell you that I played in 20 tournaments and I wanted to be at home in 19 of them,” he said. “I played the French [in 2013]. I was really motivated, that was the only one. I wanted to win a match just to bring some happiness at home.

Mathieu lost in the first round to Jarkko Nieminen in five sets and wept in his post-match news conference, dissimilar to the jubilant scenes of 12 months earlier when he ousted Isner. 

But since the loss, better news: Camus is in remission.

Mathieu's days on the tour are dwindling, and when asked how he would like to be remembered as a player, the Frenchman paused before replying. 

“I always tried, came back, I really think I had a good mentality and I was a good fighter with everything that happened to me,” he said. “Maybe many guys would have stopped.

“I could have won more tournaments and had a better ranking. But you have to accept this, keep playing and fighting for something else. After all, the ranking and wins, it’s not everything. 

“If you have the spirit and do your job the best you can and fight, that’s a different victory.” 

So, if watching Mathieu on TV next week and you hear the French faithful backing him, you may want to join in.  

Allez, Paulo, allez.

Ravi Ubha (@RaviUbha) is a freelance journalist and broadcaster who has written for ESPN, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.

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