Commentary

Marathon John runs out of steam

Updated: June 4, 2013, 1:14 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- John Isner can't help himself.

He just loves to go long in these major tournaments.

The 28-year-old American played the longest match in the history of the ATP World Tour -- 11 hours, 5 minutes three years ago at Wimbledon -- and the second-longest at Roland Garros at 5 hours, 41 minutes.

[+] EnlargeJohn Isner
Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty ImagesAfter 8 hours, 27 minutes on court the past two days, John Isner finally succumbed at the French Open.
On Saturday, he lost the first two sets to Tommy Haas, and while some observers were probably mentally advancing the 35-year-old German to the fourth round, Isner wasn't feeling it.

Isner -- the last American man in the draw -- who fought with gusto and heart and anything else you can think of, finally fell to Haas, 7-5, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-7 (10), 10-8.

"It was tough, but I could have easily lost in four sets," Isner said in his postmatch news conference. "I don't know how many match points I saved there at the end."

To his great credit, Isner saved a truly astonishing 12 match points in the epic fourth set and struck a total of 27 aces. The 13th? It produced an exhausted backhand service return that drifted just wide. According to the ATP World Tour, Haas winning on the 13th match point is a record.

Afterward, Haas was asked if it was the best match of his career.

"I need some time to think about it," he said. "It's obviously a great match to be a part of, especially at such a big event against somebody that is very used to those kinds of matches. Unfortunately, one has to lose, and I think it would have been more upsetting for me in this case, you know, after having many chances in the fourth set there.

"But it's crazy. It was a big roller coaster with not many thoughts in between. Yeah, it's definitely going to be one of the best matches to look back on, for sure."

In the end, after 4 hours, 37 minutes, Isner was spent. He seemed to be cramping and on some of Haas' shots didn't even make a move for the ball. Maybe it was because Isner -- due to a series of rainy days -- beat fellow American Ryan Harrison on Friday after three days of rest. His total time on court in a span of two days was 8 hours, 27 minutes.

"Even with that, I still was up by, what, 4-1 in the fifth set," Isner said. "So I had a chance to close it out, up in the fifth. Yeah, I liked my chances there. At the same time, you know, even up 4-1, I started feeling a little cramp here and there in my legs. I couldn't really go after the ball on my serve like I wanted to. At the end, I think, had that have been different, maybe the outcome would have been different."

On Monday, Haas -- if he has any gas left in his tank -- will play No. 29 seed Mikhail Youzhny for a berth in the quarterfinals. Haas had won his first eight sets here this year, until losing to Isner in the third.

Isner, on so many levels, is an anomaly in professional tennis. For starters, he's a college graduate, a rarity today. He is the tallest man in the history of the ATP World Tour's top 10, actually closer to 6-foot-10 than his listed 6-9. His gargantuan wingspan is more than seven feet, roughly the size of an albatross. He led all players with 1,005 aces last year and is second in 2013 -- to Nicolas Almagro, of all people.

Despite the fact he is ludicrously supersized, the No. 19-seeded Isner performs surprisingly well on the dirt. He won the title in Houston in early April. His robust serve still gets through the clay court, and the topspin that bounds higher than on any other court is right in his wheelhouse. Plus, the clay gives him more time to recover his position in the center of the court.

Isner got to the third round by moving forward whenever possible, taking advantage of his length and volleying skills. He was aggressive with his shots when he saw even a slight opening. But for two sets against Haas, he was operating against a player more fluent on clay.

And then Isner quietly escaped with the third set and hung around in the fourth. Serving at 5-6, he somehow dodged and weaved his way to a hold. Every time Haas had a match point, Isner responded -- most often with a big serve. And Haas slowly unraveled. He threw his racket, jawed with the chair umpire and watched in amazement as Isner's 21st ace slid past him for a 6-all score. In the tiebreaker, an unreturnable serve gave Isner the fourth set.

Isner raced out to a 4-2 lead in the fifth, but you didn't think this was going to be easy, did you?

Haas forced the match back on serve with a break in the seventh game, but Isner grabbed his first match point with Haas serving at 4-5. A long exchange ended with a backhand in the net, and Haas managed to draw even again.

In the 18th and final game, Haas finally prevailed.

"I fought a good fight," Isner said. "It was the only thing I can ask out of myself is to compete. Even down two sets to love, I still was fighting and it helped me. In hindsight, probably would have been better to lose in straight sets, because I feel terrible right now."

Nadal toughs out another one

It was another brutally difficult first set for Rafael Nadal, but unlike his first two matches here, he won it.

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
AP Photo/Michel SpinglerRafael Nadal, despite a straight-sets win Saturday, still appears to be laboring.
Fabio Fognini, the wonderfully watchable Italian, made him thoroughly miserable over a 69-minute first frame that was ultimately decided in a tiebreaker. The final was 7-6 (5), 6-4, 6-4, and it ran a clunky 2 hours, 45 minutes.

Rafa has now spent a troubling 8 hours, 23 minutes on the court for his first three matches -- and lost a total of 48 games.

"I have to play better," Rafa said. "If I want to have any chance, I really need to play better. But always is the same history. When you win without playing your best, you have the chance to play better.

"So important [to] stay humble these kind of days, stay with the right mentality, positive, and accept in every moment that all the difficulties that comes and try to win. That's the whole thing, no?"

It is tribute to Nadal's remarkable consistency that Fognini is the tournament's No. 27 and Nadal has never lost to a player seeded as low or lower than Fognini in a Grand Slam.

Even with his second victory in as many days, the feeling prevails that Rafa is not quite himself. Could he be a half-step slow after missing seven months with a knee injury? To the naked eye, it seems he's not getting to balls at the edges of the court that were once easily retrieved. Don't forget that Nadal, who first won here at the age of 19, turns 27 on Monday. And with the physicality of his game, it's an old 27.

Nadal next sees Kei Nishikori, the 23-year-old wizard from Japan, for a berth in the quarterfinals.

Despite all the commotion over his lack of form, Nadal is still the favorite to win his eighth French Open title in nine appearances. That would make him the first man to win eight titles in the same Grand Slam, separating him from the seven who have won seven.

Oh, and this just in: Rafa is now 55-1 for his career at Roland Garros.

Nishikori moves on

Nishikori carved up Frenchman Benoit Paire 6-3, 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-1 -- and made a little slice of history too. He is the first Japanese man to reach the fourth round here since Fumiteru Nakano in 1938.

Afterward, Nishikori, seeded No. 13, was asked what he knew about Nakano, launching the following exchange with a reporter:

Q. Have you ever heard of Nakano Fumiteru? Nishikori: No, sorry.

Q. He was the last Japanese to reach the fourth round at Roland Garros. Nishikori: Oh, OK.

Q. 1938. Long time ago. Nishikori: Sorry, I'm not good at the history.

Q. Right. Nishikori: Yeah, I'm happy to create another history and, yeah, happy to break another record.

Bryan brothers rolling

The No. 1 men's doubles seed, Bob and Mike Bryan advanced to the third round, defeating fellow Americans Eric Butorac and Jack Sock 7-5, 7-6 (2) in a tidy 90 minutes.

The Bryans are looking for their 89th tournament title and 14th Grand Slam doubles championship, which would extend their records in both categories. The French Open has been their least successful major; they won here once, in 2003.

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.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

MORE TENNIS HEADLINES

MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM