Precisely at 4:40 p.m. Paris time, two Americans won sets on the two big showcourts at Roland Garros against two of the world’s best clay-court players.
Time to dream — but not for long.
Neither John Isner, who pushed Rafael Nadal to five sets on Court Philippe Chatrier, nor Ryan Harrison, who made Robin Soderling work for a place in the second round over on Court Suzanne Lenglen, could grab the victory that would have embellished their careers.
But it sure was fun while it lasted. Both for Harrison, who hadn’t expected to be out there in the first place, and Isner, who had Nadal on the ropes, a monumental upset within sight.
This was the first time that Nadal, who is seeking his sixth title here in seven years, had been taken to five sets in the French Open, and the world No. 1 was very relieved to escape from a two-sets-to-one deficit, winning 6-4, 6-7 (2), 6-7 (2), 6-2, 6-4.
"I played too nervous in the tiebreaks," Nadal said. "Against that type of player, you have to play safe. I didn’t play free. Then it was better when I get the break in the fourth, but even then I knew I could not allow another tiebreak. Too dangerous. In the fifth it was better because I knew there would be no tiebreak."
Isner was getting a great deal of support from the chic Parisian crowd on center court as he attacked the champion in the second and third sets, making inroads into the Spaniard’s defenses with his net-rushing tactics.
"I was winning points coming in, simple as that," Isner said. "That’s what my serve helps me do. It helps me get on the offense pretty quickly. But it really came down to the way he played the fourth and fifth sets.
"I haven’t seen tennis like that ever. He really didn’t make any mistakes. He gave me nothing. That’s why he’s No. 1 and one of the greatest players ever."
Nadal’s two whiplash service returns to break Isner’s serve for a 2-1 lead in the fifth were the match-winning strokes that broke the American’s resistance. But Isner kept fighting, running on empty by the end.
"He was pushing me around, believe me," Isner said ruefully. "The 30-all point in the last game — I needed oxygen after that. I almost collapsed. My legs were dead."
It was a great effort. And, before we turn to Harrison’s unscheduled appearance, we need to note the American success stories of the day. Sam Querrey lost the first set to Germany’s talented Philipp Kohlschreiber but then turned on the heat and played some highly effective clay-court tennis to sweep to a thoroughly impressive 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 victory. Tuesday was a far cry from last year when Querrey lost amidst a flurry of errors in the first round.
Vania King refused to be downhearted after losing the first set in a tight tiebreaker to Dominika Cibulkova and turned the match inside out to win 6-7 (10), 6-3, 6-2. Cibulkova was a good scalp for an American player on clay because the Slovak was a semifinalist here in 2009.
Harrison’s story was a classic example of grabbing an opportunity. Ryan only heard he was playing at 9 p.m. Monday when news of Benjamin Becker’s withdrawal came through. "I had the flight booked and my brother was ready to pick me up in Tampa," said Harrison after he had distinguished himself in the course of a 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-5 defeat at the hands of Soderling, the big Swede who has been in the final here for the past two years. "I knew I was in line for a lucky loser’s spot and had been bugging the trainers to find out what the possibilities were. In the end, two of the guys they thought might pull out didn’t, but Becker did. It was an awesome opportunity even if I didn’t really deserve it after losing in qualifying."
Harrison felt he had been too defensive behind his own serve, but that was being hypercritical. He had outplayed Soderling at the end of the second set, winning it with a magnificently played point which saw him recover from being drawn wide on his backhand to race across the court and whip a forehand past the Swede for a glorious winner.
Soderling’s pounding groundstrokes started to take their toll, but Harrison did not go away in the fourth. "I was one point away from serving to go into the fifth set," he said. "At 3-4 in the fourth, he was 15-40; I had second serves and then lost two rallies. It was nip and tuck. But it was great to be out there playing someone like him."
Harrison, 19, is an ambitious young man and does not hide it. "I would always prefer to play against someone like Soderling or Nadal because I want to test myself against the best. I want to win a Slam and be No. 1 in the world, so I have to know where I am. An easy first round against a lesser player wouldn’t have done me as much good."
Soderling was complimentary. "Ryan has a really good serve and is very good in defense," he said. "He can be a great player. In the end, the match was pretty close."