PARIS—Isner vs. Mahut, 2010 Wimbledon. Isner vs. Cilic, 2011 Australian Open. Isner vs. Nalbandian, 2012 Australian Open. Isner vs. Roddick, 2009 U.S. Open, Isner vs. Nadal, 2011 French Open, Isner and a whole bunch of other long matches. Finally, today, Mathieu over Isner, 6-7 (2) 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 18-16 in 5 hours and 41 minutes. Did you ever think you would spend so much of your life watching John Isner play tennis?
This one had all the hallmarks of the Isner Epic:
There were the outsized stats: Isner hit 41 aces and 107 winners, and committed 69 errors; the number of games played, 76, was the most at Roland Garros in the Open era.
There were the many ups and downs through the first four sets, which inevitably ended in deadlock. This was the clay version of the epic, with lots of rallies; while Ismat lasted half as long as Isnut, there may have been more running involved today. In the first set, and particularly in the tiebreaker, Isner won the important baseline rallies by using his forehand to force errors. But Mathieu turned that equation around in the next two sets with his own forehand. In classic Isner fashion, though, the American found a second (or third, or fourth) wind of decisiveness and accuracy in the fourth.
Then, finally, there was the woozy way Isner ambled through the overtime games in the fifth. For most of them, he looked gassed and was arming his serve in. Then, when he got down match point, he came to brilliant life. At 10-11, Isner saved three match points from 0-40, the last with a titanic kick serve and forehand winner; he used the bigger-than-normal dimensions of Chatrier to move Mathieu far out wide with his kick all day. At 14-15, he saved two more, one with an ace and another when Mathieu pulled up on a pass and netted it. Finally, at 16-17, after saving six match points, Isner lofted a tired forehand wide that ended it.
Isner said he never felt comfortable out there, that he’s been in a slump, and that he let this trip to Europe “get to me”—he beat himself up for all of that in his press conference afterward. And it's true, he didn’t force the action from the baseline most of the time. Two months ago, when he beat Federer and Djokovic, Isner was taking his chances in his return games as soon as he could. That hasn’t been the case during the clay season, and he spent a lot of this one on defense, a place where John Isner should never be.
The moment belonged to Mathieu, and he deserved it. He’s blown his share of epic matches over the years, including a haunting one in the 5th rubber of a Davis Cup final against Russia in 2002, when he was up two sets to love. Mathieu has been injured, and he said today that at times over the last year he wondered if he would ever play again. Slowly today Mathieu found his old game, his old energetic baseline style, over the course of the first three sets. He said that the time away had made him more mature, and that he might have become more tense in this situation in the past. This time, though, even after losing all of those match points, he kept holding his serve and his nerve.
Does this match tell us that tiebreakers should be instituted in fifth sets at the Slams? There were long moments, as there are in all Isner Epics, of tedium. More than once, I caught myself following the birds around the top of the Chatrier rather than keeping track of the mind-numbing rallies going on below. And it’s hard to beat a fifth-set breaker for condensed excitement. How about this? We change the rule for John Isner, and force him to play tiebreakers at 6-all in the fifth. Wouldn't that take care of the problem?
The upside of the overtime epic comes when the players reach match point: “Could this finally be it?” everyone in the stadium thought as they sat forward. Then, when Isner got out of it yet again today, we leaned back and smiled at the ridiculousness of it all. These are moments to remember, as this match will be one to remember, even if we must willfully forget how long it all took, and how short our lives are.
For now, I’ll cede the answer to the winner, 30-year-old Paul Henri-Mathieu. The match may cost him his next round, but when it was all over, the veteran of so many emotional defeats stood with tears in his eyes as the Chatrier crowd chanted his name.
He said, “These are the moments I came back for.” Who can begrudge him that?