PARIS — This, then, is who John Isner is for now: The Marathon Man of Tennis, the guy who plays and plays and plays, for hours on end, until the last set seems interminable.
At Wimbledon two years ago, he won 70-68 in the fifth, the longest set and match in tennis history. At Roland Garros on Thursday, as afternoon gave way to evening, the 10th-seeded American lost 7-6 (2), 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 18-16 to Paul-Henri Mathieu of France in the second round, a 5-hour, 41-minute test of stamina and attention span.
This one goes in the books as the second-longest match, by time, in French Open history.
“I just didn’t get it done. I felt like I got caught in patterns that weren’t ideal for me,” said a somber Isner, whose exit means there are no U.S. men in the third round for the first time since 2007. “I wasn’t going for my shots at certain points in the match, and that comes from a little bit of a lack of confidence.”
If the 6-foot-9 Isner, who led Georgia to an NCAA title, is going to become more than a novelty act, he needs to win encounters like Thursday’s, and not because of the duration but because it was a first-week Grand Slam match against a player ranked 261st who got into the field thanks to a wild-card invitation from the tournament.
After finally converting his seventh match point — Isner never had one — an emotional Mathieu thanked the partisan crowd in the main stadium for willing him to victory. Their sing-song choruses of “Po-lo! Po-lo!” — the French equivalent of “Paulie” — and roars of approval rang out after pretty much every point he won down the stretch.
“I dug deep,” said the 30-year-old Mathieu, who hadn’t played in a major tournament since the 2010 U.S. Open because of a left knee injury that forced him off tour all of last year. “I was away from the courts for quite a while, and I came back to live moments like this.”
He helped provide easily the most intrigue on a day that featured straight-set wins for defending champions Rafael Nadal and Li Na. But it also ended after 9 p.m., forcing organizers to postpone until Friday the match involving Maria Sharapova that was supposed to follow on Court Philippe Chatrier.
About 10 hours earlier in that stadium, it appeared a man seeded even higher than Isner would be on his way out of the tournament: No. 4 Andy Murray’s back was so painful he could barely move, let alone play tennis at the level required to win a Grand Slam match.
Or so it seemed.
For the better part of an hour, the three-time major finalist looked downright miserable. He grimaced. He clutched at the small of his back. He contorted his body. He stepped gingerly, as though barefoot on a hot day at the beach. He tapped in serves at speeds so slow they’d be OK while driving on a highway. He considered quitting.
“Just kind of gritting my teeth,” Murray said, “and (trying) to find a way of turning the match around, because I was a few points, probably, from stopping.”
And then, thanks in large part to a couple of massages from a trainer, Murray began to feel better. It helped, too, that his opponent, 48th-ranked Jarkko Nieminen of Finland, was incapable of taking advantage of Murray’s nearly incapacitated state. So Murray managed to come back to win 1-6, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 and reach the third round at Roland Garros for the fifth consecutive year.
What’s unclear, even to Murray, is how his back will be for his next match.
“I have no idea what will happen in two days,” said Murray, a semifinalist at each of the last five Grand Slam tournaments. “But if it’s something like a spasm, it’s not like you’re doing major damage. You know, it’s just a really, really tight muscle.”
The 25-year-old from Scotland, being coached this season by eight-time major champion Ivan Lendl, had been dealing with a bad back for months. It forced him to pull out of the Madrid Open in early May. But Murray insisted that Thursday’s problem was different — although might have been related, because he might have bothered a muscle by compensating for the earlier injury.
“It was his fault for letting me back into the match, because I didn’t do anything special,” Murray said. “I just tried to put some balls back in.”
Nieminen agreed, saying: “I feel like I had him. … It’s not often that somebody looks that bad and can keep going.”
But Murray did trudge on, putting in serves at 70 mph or so, and taking big cuts at returns to try to end points then and there, until he could swing more freely.
Isner, meanwhile, topped 130 mph regularly, pounded 41 aces and only double-faulted once against Mathieu, but never did enough on his returns, earning only four break points all match — the same formula that led to his monumental 11-hour, 5-minute victory over another Frenchman, Nicolas Mahut, in the first round at the All England Club in 2010.
“I served well,” Isner said. “Just didn’t do anything else that well.”
The record-smashing, three-day ordeal against Mahut never entered Isner’s mind Thursday, he insisted. Mathieu said that when he learned he’d be facing Isner, he sought advice from Mahut — and vowed to avenge his pal’s tough loss.
From nearly the moment his match against Mahut was finally over, Isner has made clear he wants to be known for greater accomplishments, for deep runs at Grand Slam tournaments.
The next chance for that comes on Wimbledon’s grass in June. For now, though, Isner wants to head to Florida and take a break.
“I’m going to go home,” he said. “I don’t even want to think about tennis right now.”