Tennis

Frenchman outlasts Isner in marathon

John Isner and Paul Henri Mathieu
John Isner, left, hugs Paul-Henri Mathieu after their marathon French Open match.
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Richard Evans

Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." Follow him on Twitter.

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PARIS

John Isner pulled it out at Wimbledon, but this one  at the French Open was beyond him.

At 9:12 p.m. Paris time Thursday, in the gathering gloom of the Philippe Chatrier Center Court, Isner hit a forehand fractionally wide on the sixth match point he was being asked to save. The victory, after 5 hours, 41 minutes, went to wild card Paul-Henri Mathieu, a Frenchman who knows all about the pain of losing marathons.

2012 French Open

2012 French Open

Isner, who took 11 hours, 5 minutes, to beat another Frenchman, Nicolas Mahut, in a record-smashing match two years ago at Wimbledon, went down 6-7 (2), 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 18-16 in a second-round duel that broke the French Open record for most games played in a fifth set.

"I can’t believe I won that match," Mathieu said. "I was just fighting, and I am so happy to win on this court in front of these fans."

It has been a long 10 years since Mathieu suffered the humiliation of losing a two-set lead in the fifth rubber of a Davis Cup final against Russia at Bercy on the other side of Paris. It was Mikhail Youzhny, cheered on by Boris Yeltsin, who won the Cup for his nation in front of a stunned crowd.

It took Mathieu at least a year to recover some measure of confidence, and he eventually rose to No. 12 in the world in 2008 before he was struck down by a knee injury. The 30-year-old has been trying to fight his way back onto the tour for months and needed the wild card here because his ranking stood at 261 before this week.

All Isner’s great achievements on clay this year have been in Davis Cup — beating Roger Federer in Switzerland and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in France — but he has yet to reveal his true abilities on clay in tournament play. He came so close Thursday — fighting back so well to dominate the fourth set, striking a solid ball off the ground behind his massive serve and generally looking well capable of escaping into the third round.

Mathieu, however, jutted his jaw and refused to buckle in the fifth. Serving well himself, he kept putting enough pressure on the American's serve and tried to make the most of the advantage of serving first.

Twice, he had Isner 15-40 down. But on the first four match points, the big man didn’t flinch, banging down huge serves or sweeping forehand winners out of Mathieu’s reach. Then, at 17-16, after he had netted a forehand, Isner was 15-40 down again. A big first serve forced Mathieu to return long on the first. Then, finally, Isner failed to find the mark as he went cross court on a big forehand, and it was all over.

“I didn’t play the right way,” said Isner, disappointment etched all over his face. “I served well, but I didn’t do anything else well. I didn’t go for my shots. My inability to change what I was doing cost me the match. He was the better player the whole day.”

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With Isner's defeat, no Americans are left in men's singles. American men went a combined 3-8 in the tournament.

The American women, meanwhile, continued to impress, although their number has dwindled in the past 48 hours. Christina McHale defeated Lauren Davis 6-1, 6-3 in the first meeting between the two young US hopefuls, but the big win went to Varvara Lepchenko, who overcame former world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-4.

Lepchenko, who kissed the net after match point, revealed how Patrick McEnroe had helped her the day before.

“I had a hit with Patrick," she said, "and he told me, 'Wow!, you’re hitting your forehand amazing. You should use it during the match against Jelena.' I tried to execute that plan and tried to play my forehand as much as I could. It did help.”

The aftermath of that stunning victory over Serena Williams rebounded on Virginie Razzano, and the French player went down 6-3, 7-6 to Arantxa Rus of the Netherlands.

“What I missed was something physical,” Razzano said. “I suffered physically against Serena.”

Drama is usually lurking in the shadows when Andy Murray plays at Roland Garros. Last year, he suffered an ankle injury and was on the verge of quitting against Germany’s Michael Berrer but recovered and went to reach the semifinals.

This year, on a cool, cloudy Thursday morning, Murray appeared on Center Court to play the Finnish veteran Jarkko Nieminen, having made a late decision to play after suffering from back muscle pain. After a couple of games, Murray started feeling his back muscles tighten up again. For the rest of the set, which Nieminen won 6-1, the Scot could hardly move. He certainly couldn’t do more than push token serves across the net at about 70 mph, and the advice he was getting from his box, where coach Ivan Lendl was sitting, stone-faced, was, “Quit."

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Murray ignored the advice, a decision that paid off with a 1-6, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 victory.

“Before the match, my physio had told me I would not be doing any permanent damage by playing," Murray said, "But when they saw how I was moving, they told me to stop. But I just didn’t really want to stop the match. So I just kept going, and then it started to feel better.”

The three-minute timeout for a courtside massage helped, as did the sun, which appeared just as Murray was trying to battle back from 2-4 down in the second set. By then, the edge had gone from Nieminen’s game, and he was falling into the trap of over-compensating for an immobile opponent. The Finn started to go for too much and lost his rhythm. Murray hung on, grabbed a break point to pull it back to 4-4 and then, slowly, carefully, took control of the match.

By the start of the fourth set, Murray was moving freely again and he swept through the set with his customary array of smoothly hit ground strokes, leaving poor Nieminen in total disarray.

“I just couldn’t believe I had won,” Murray said. “I guess when you are in that position in a Grand Slam, emotionally it’s pretty challenging because you’ve been only one or two points away from having to stop. So I just couldn’t believe it. Rather than being satisfying, it was just quite emotional.”

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