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Steve Flink: Isner and Mahut - Round Two

6/21/2011 5:00:00 PM

WIMBLEDON—There they were again, John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, facing each other in the first round of Wimbledon for the second year in a row. In a cruel twist of fate, these two men were pitted against each other again after contesting the longest match ever in the history of tennis a year ago. On that occasion, Isner eventually prevailed in eleven hours and five minutes, across three days, through a seemingly endless ordeal. Isner was victorious 6-4,3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68. The two players commenced that match on Tuesday evening at 6:09 and played on until 9:07. They resumed play at 2:08 on Wednesday and fought all the way to 59-59 in the fifth set, stopping at 9:10. At 3:43 on Thursday, they continued this improbably long contest, and then at last Isner succeeded after twenty more games. Isner set a record that will surely never be broken, releasing an astounding 113 aces, while Mahut was not far behind with 103. Statistically, it was a remarkably good match, and both men played first rate grass court tennis.

Yet the fact remains that the match was not of the highest caliber that tennis has to offer. Neither man returned well, a fact affirmed in that there were 168 holds leading up to Isner’s break in the final game of the encounter. It was a novelty match to be sure, a topic for sports buffs to discuss animatedly by the water cooler, a source of intrigue for casual observers who do not pay much attention to tennis. It was very good but it was not a classic. Unsurprisingly, Isner was totally spent after his marathon triumph, and he was obliterated in the second round by Thiemo De Bakker. Isner lost 6-0, 6-3, 6-2 in 74 minutes, and did not serve an ace. In many ways, he was not the same player for the rest of 2010; it was as if the physical and emotional investment he made in that one match had simply drained the American of any remaining resources. He had made history and raised his stature as a tennis player and an athlete, but at what cost? I believed then—and still do—that Wimbledon should have tie-breaks in the final set of all matches, which would have shortened the Isner-Mahut contest by no fewer than 125 games.

In any event, today Isner was determined to conduct his business more efficiently and opportunistically. He got out of the blocks purposefully. This showdown did not start until 6:26 in the evening, and both men held on persistently to set up a first set tie-break.  Isner imposed himself significantly in this sequence, racing to a 6-1 lead. From 0-1 he swept six points in a row. Mahut was serving at 1-2 when he sent a backhand first volley long. Then the Frenchman netted an overhead off a high defensive lob from the American. Isner served his way to 6-1 with a 125 MPH service winner to the backhand and a forehand volley winner off a backhand down the line passing shot from his opponent. Mahut secured the next three points, but Isner came through 7-4 as Mahut drove a backhand pass long.

Relieved after taking that set, Isner broke to move ahead 3-1 in the second set, and kept utter control of that section of the match, adding an insurance break to close out the set 6-2. Isner was serving with extraordinary authority, accuracy and pace, and was serving-and-volleying just often enough to keep Mahut honest. The 26-year-old American knew the sky was darkening earlier than usual for this time of the year, and he surely wanted to close out the contest as swiftly as possible. He understood that the last thing he needed was to be dragged into a fourth set in the fading light.

But Mahut was not easily surrendering. He broke Isner for the first and only time in the match on his way to a 4-2 third set lead. Isner realized he had to fight back emphatically, and he did just that, collecting three games in a row.  With Mahut serving to stay in the match at 4-5, the Frenchman was at 30-30, two points away from a straight set defeat. But he produced two clutch aces in a row to hold on for 5-5. At 5-6, Mahut displayed his grit and gumption again, holding on from 15-30 to bring about another tie-break. Isner connected beautifully for a forehand down the line return winner as Mahut followed his serve in at 5-5, and that sparkling shot gave Isner a match point. He squandered it with an errant backhand volley into the net off a chipped backhand return from Mahut, but then Isner put away a bounce smash to earn a second match point with Mahut serving at 6-7. Isner played with fitting caution, keeping the ball sensibly in play until Mahut missed with an inside-out forehand approach. In two hours and three minutes, Isner prevailed 7-6, 6-2, 7-6.

Isner is looking more and more like the player who toppled Andy Roddick in a fifth set tie-break at the 2009 U.S. Open. He is carrying himself like a man who knows precisely what he wants and realizes how to go about achieving it. He is back in command on the low volley, better able to exploit his flat forehand, less inclined to back away from what he needs to do in the crunch of tough contests. If he plays his cards right, Isner might meet Roger Federer in the round of 16, and he could make an impression on the grass if he is having one of his finest serving days.

The feeling grows that Isner is a player of growing awareness, a competitor who increasingly understands his potential, a man determined to make his presence known whenever and wherever he can. Toppling Mahut was not that tall a task this time around as the 29-year-old Frenchman was beaten for the sixth time in ten matches this year on the ATP World Tour. But it was an important win for Isner after what he endured a year ago. Now it is time for him to drive himself on to loftier territory, to demand a higher standard from himself day in and day out, to begin at last to earn consistent chances to compete against the best players in his profession.

The hope here is that Isner will make the progress he surely can. He does not belong at No. 47 in the world. He is capable of much more than that. He is a top 20 player. And this is time for John Isner to start playing at that level again.

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