Over and over and over again in his latest hard-to-believe five-setter, John Isner was a single point from losing to 35-year-old Tommy Haas. And over and over and over again, Isner put off defeat, saving a record 12 match points.
He could not find a way to win, though. And he could not save Haas’ 13th match point.
Haas became the oldest man to reach the French Open’s fourth round since 2007, putting his dozen wasted chances in the fourth set behind him, then coming back from a break down in the last set to beat Isner 7-5, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-7 (10), 10-8 on Saturday.
And so the American best known for winning a nothing-comes-close 70-68 fifth set at Wimbledon in 2010 departs with a five-set loss for a fifth consecutive Grand Slam tournament.
”These long matches seem to follow me,” Isner said, his words drawn out slowly.
”In hindsight, probably would have been better to lose in straight sets,” Isner said, rubbing his left cheek with his palm, ”because I feel terrible right now.”
He paused and, sounding like a person trying to convince himself, added: ”But I’ll recover.”
The match lasted 4 hours, 37 minutes. That’s nothing, of course, compared to the 11-plus hours Isner played across three days during his 70-68 victory over Nicolas Mahut in the first round at Wimbledon three years ago.
Haas, like everyone else, associates Isner with that marathon to top all marathons.
”I was definitely hoping it wasn’t going to go like in Wimbledon with him and Mahut. I was probably going to wave the white flag before that,” the 12th-seeded Haas said. ”That was not going to happen to me.”
Isner led 3-0 and 4-1 in the fifth set but let Haas get back into things with a break to 4-3. Ahead 5-4 as Haas served, Isner earned his first – and only – match point. With the roles now reversed, the American failed to take advantage, flubbing a backhand on a 12-stroke exchange.
The International Tennis Federation said the most match points saved in any men’s match on record were the 11 erased by Adriano Panatta when he wound up defeating Kim Warwick in Rome in 1976. In the 2000 French Open final, Magnus Norman saved 10 match points before losing to Gustavo Kuerten on the 11th.
Neither Haas nor the 19th-seeded Isner realized just how many there were Saturday.
”I lost track totally,” Haas said.
Well, here’s a recap: Nine match points came in a single game, when Isner served while trailing 6-5.
”It kept going to deuce, break point, deuce, break point,” Haas said.
Three more came in the tiebreaker. Haas, a four-time Grand Slam semifinalist, was up 7-6 when Isner hit an ace. Then, with Haas getting a chance to serve while ahead 8-7, the German double-faulted. And at 9-8, Haas pushed a backhand into the net.
Isner eventually converted his third set point, at 11-10, with a service winner, and a wide smile creased his face.
The match was more than 3 1/2 hours old.
”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,” Haas said. ”Unfortunately, one has to lose, and I think it would have been more upsetting for me in this case after having many chances in the fourth set there.”
Haas was only 2 for 22 on break-point chances until converting his 23rd when Isner put a volley into the net. Haas then served out the victory.
By the end, the older Haas looked to be the fresher man against Isner, who is 28. At the changeover before the last game, the 6-foot-9 Isner chose not to even sit in his sideline chair, leaning over with his hands on his knees and his chest heaving.
”I was laboring a bit at the end, that’s for sure,” said Isner, who noted that he felt cramping in his legs.
He had spent plenty of time on court a day earlier: Isner never had come back to win after dropping the first two sets until he did it Friday against Ryan Harrison. Isner couldn’t quite pull off that trick twice in a span of about 30 hours.
Before that Harrison victory, Isner also had dropped six five-setters in a row, including one at each Grand Slam tournament in 2012. He skipped the Australian Open this January because of a right knee injury.
On Saturday, Isner hit 27 aces over the course of the late afternoon and early evening on Court 1, which is known as the ”bullring” because of its oval shape. A large segment of the crowd, pulling for Haas, broke into clap-accompanied chants of ”Tom-my! Tom-my!”
The most effective part of Isner’s game is his serve, which comes from such a height that it is difficult for nearly any opponent to deal with, no matter the surface. That’s why it’s such a challenge to break Isner – or win tiebreakers against him.
His collection of five-set epics – he is now 5-12 in such lengthy matches; Haas is 21-20 – includes a loss to Rafael Nadal in the first round of the 2011 French Open, which remains the only time the tournament’s seven-time champion has been pushed the distance in Paris.
In Paris a year ago, Isner lost 18-16 in the second round to Paul-Henri Mathieu, a Frenchman ranked outside the top 250 at the time. That one lasted 5 hours, 41 minutes, making it the second-longest match, by time, in French Open history.
While Isner again will head home after a five-set setback – leaving zero American men in the tournament – Haas plays on. He’ll face No. 29 Mikhail Youzhny of Russia for a berth in the quarterfinals.
”Tommy, he stayed the course,” Isner said, ”and he deserves the win.”