Commentary

Not this time, John Isner

Updated: May 31, 2012, 8:16 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- When the match crossed the four-hour mark, some of those watching at Court Philippe Chatrier began to feel the flashbacks, those uneasy spasms of recognition.

For John Isner, the Georgia Bulldog, it must have felt like chronic combat fatigue.

Two years ago, Isner and Nicolas Mahut played the longest tennis match in history at Wimbledon. It lasted 11 hours, 5 minutes (played over three days), and the score in the final set was a staggering 70-68. Although Isner won, it was many months before he recovered, physically or emotionally.

It's happening again … oh, the horror

On Thursday, playing against Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu -- and about 10,000 extremely partisan Parisians -- Isner found himself in another inescapable marathon. As the wave broke out around the stadium, as the singing, stamping and clapping escalated with every changeover, you got the feeling you were sinking into another feverish dream.

[+] EnlargePaul-Henri Mathieu
Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty ImagesPaul-Henri Mathieu, perhaps, soothed some of the Parisian pain that lingered from countryman Nicolas Mahut's marathon loss.

Isner already was the final American man standing at this French Open as the sun began to sink. The only question: Would he live past the fifth day of the tournament? And then, when the clock ticked past 9 p.m., local time: Would they run out of light?

Finally, when Isner's final looping forehand fell wide, Mathieu was a winner, 6-7 (2), 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 18-16.

The match required 5 hours, 41 minutes. The final set consumed 2 hours, 28 minutes alone.

Honestly, it felt longer.

"It's more disappointing on how I lost it," Isner said. "For whatever, six hours, [I was] really not doing what I should be doing. I just couldn't free myself up the whole match, so I just -- he's a good player, and he was better than me today. He deserved to win."

Said Mathieu: "At the end of the match, I didn't even believe that the match was done. You played this long, yeah. I didn't even realize the match was finished."

This epic match required a mere 76 games -- 107 fewer than the marathon at Wimbledon. It was the second-longest match in the Open era at Roland Garros and featured the most games ever in the tiebreaker era.

As always, the sequel failed to pass the original. But it wasn't bad.

And like that Wimbledon classic, this one generated a slew of not-to-be-believed numbers, as Isner:

• Saved seven match points.

• Saved 20 of 24 break points

• Fired 41 aces

• Was credited with 107 winners and 98 unforced errors.

But it must be said: The better athlete won. The 30-year-old wild card won 233 points to Isner's 217.

That Isner nearly defeated a Frenchman in the largest clay venue in the world is something of an accomplishment. In recent years, Chatrier has been Le Court de la Mort for American men. Andy Roddick is the only U.S. man to win on The Court of Death since 2004; he managed it three times. The rest of America's best are a collective 0-13. Frenchman Gilles Simon, for example, beat Americans Ryan Harrison and Brian Baker there in back-to-back matches in the first and second rounds.

One subtle difference between Isner's two exceptionally long matches: At Wimbledon, he had the luxury of serving first; Mahut was always serving to stay in the match. Here, it was Mathieu serving when the score was even, shifting the pressure to Isner.

Isner, like a number of Americans -- Sam Querrey, a few years ago, comes to mind -- felt a little dislocated during his four-week European working vacation.

"I just let it, this whole trip, get to me," Isner said. "It's the absolute wrong thing to do. It's very bad on my part. I never felt like I was in a good rhythm at any point."

Strategically, Isner said, he failed to execute.

"I felt like I got caught in patterns that weren't ideal for me," he said. "I was hitting every return to his backhand, and he was stepping up and running me around. I'm not going to win a point when I'm running side to side.

"I guess you could say I didn't have that much confidence out there at all, to be honest. I mean, 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."

Mathieu said in his postmatch news conference that he consulted Mahut about Isner's serving tendencies.

There were too many missed opportunities -- for both men -- to count.

Mathieu was leading 11-10 and won the first three points on Isner's serve. Isner saved the first match point when Mathieu missed a forehand wide. The second was erased by a muscular ace. On the third, Isner hit an unnatural second serve and followed it with an even bigger forehand. He leveled the match with another huge offering and a forehand behind it.

Isner fell behind 15-40 on his serve at 14-15 -- a forehand yanked wide was the culprit -- and saved his fourth and fifth match points. This was the point when things started to feel surreal. Isner was unnervingly calm under duress, even though as the match progressed past the five-hour mark, Isner's body language was troubling. He rested between points with hands on his knees. Mathieu was a ball of fire, bouncing and exuding all kinds of hyperactive energy.

In a sea of statistics, break points saved are one number that truly correlates to success. Isner, along with Milos Raonic and Roger Federer, leads ATP players in break points saved, at 74 percent. Usually, Isner's serve is unassailable; he is second behind Raonic in aces. Against Mathieu, oddly enough, Isner was extremely, surprisingly vulnerable.

The last of those 24 break opportunities was the difference.

When it was over, Mathieu -- the No. 261-ranked player in the world -- stood serenely still with his arms raised above his head. The crowd, on its feet, gave a lusty, seismic roar that you rarely hear in sport. Isner, ranked No. 11, quickly packed his bags and walked off the court, blinking back the tears. He gave a weak thumbs-up as he ducked into the tunnel.

How much did that endless Wimbledon match creep into his mind?

"No," Isner said, "I didn't think about that."

Now he has a very small sense of the grief Mahut felt that day at Wimbledon.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.