May 24, 2011 -- John Isner sure takes to a spotlight. After his 11-hour match at Wimbledon last year the press nicknamed him Marathon Man. Today, he became the first to take Rafael Nadal to five sets at Roland Garros.
One astute Eurosport commentator called the match "quite a tussle," minutes before Nadal hit the winning ball. "Who would've thought John Isner would give him [Nadal] that kind of a match?" added a co-anchor.
It was the match tournament officials fear. The kind that raises blood pressure, causes nail biting, and provokes uncontrollable cravings for French wine when the thought of drinking anything other than Perrier Water during the day never crossed your mind.
"Tough draw," Isner admitted, like a levelheaded man about to step in a lion's den. "It's also a good opportunity."
Given his druthers Isner wouldn't have chosen Nadal for a first round, and probably not for any other round either. But there's no choice in a draw, especially when you're not seeded like Isner. The wheel of fortune spins some pretty stressful sights -- like Nadal's name stacked on top of Isner's as a first-round matchup.
"If I can keep the match close anything can happen," he said, adding that he'd like to keep rallies short. But that went right out the window. The first point was 17 shots.
Isner kept the other promise, though. He kept the match close. At the end of three sets, in fact, Isner had reversed roles with the acknowledged Roland Garros dominator. Marathon Man was up two sets. The French crowds seemed delighted, too, about this new hero they'd come to know from his wild Wimbledon ride just last year.
"Bravo," they cheered perfectly.
The fourth set would either see another tiebreak, which Isner would probably win. He'd won the ones in sets one and two. The only... yes, the only route Nadal could plot was a break. Without that cushion, he was on a plane to Spain.
"The break at 2-1 in the fourth [was] very, very important," Nadal told the press, especially after losing the break he held in the third. "If I get to a tiebreaker... big trouble."
He knew down to his toes he didn't play well in those two tiebreaks. Otherwise, quite simply, he wouldn't have felt mentally cornered.
"You play with lots of pressure," Nadal said. "Because this tournament is very, very important to me."
Yes, indeed. Win this year -- a sixth major title -- and he will have tied Bjorn Borg's record, having accomplished it in seven years not the eight Borg took.
Nadal found fifth gear just in time. He ran down every ball and sent Isner on a slippery trail, yanking him left and right over the red clay. Nadal served well, too, quashing Isner's approach-the-net tactic that served him well earlier in the match.
Nadal was relentless in the fourth set. He stretched himself every which way to keep the break on his side of the net. And he repeated the effort in the fifth set.
"I've never seen tennis like that, ever, in the fourth and fifth sets, " Marathon Man Isner said incredulously. "I almost needed oxygen. I was almost dead."
Nadal knew with a sense of deep satisfaction that the break in the fifth was key. Isner didn't make the win an easy one, challenging Nadal all the way up to the last ball.
"After the break in fifth, I played the best of match," Nadal said modestly, concealing as best as possible any hubris. He has learned from Uncle Toni, his lifelong coach, that self-importance has no place in tennis.
Final score: 64 67(2) 67(2) 62 64. Length of match: a hair past four hours.
In the end Nadal was the one shortening points. He relied on his speed, agility and net game, an underestimated asset for the Spaniard, to bring him victory. He does love Paris and didn't want to sit, just yet, on a fishing boat off the coast of Mallorca dangling his toes in sea.
Nadal's record at Roland Garros now stands at 39-1. It looks eerily similar to the record balancing on Novak Djokovic -- 39-0.
Nadal isn't worried about Djokovic's record right now. The number-one seed is probably thanking everyone on his team, instead, preparing ever so precisely for the next round -- round two -- five steps from the final he would love to see himself play in.