By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
PARIS, France - In one fell swoop, John Isner nearly revived a sporadic season and pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Roland Garros history, but at the end of the titanic struggle, five-time champion Rafael Nadal wore down the American 6-4, 6-7(2), 6-7(2), 6-2, 6-4 on Tuesday.
It was the legendary Nadal's first five-set match at Roland Garros and he nearly suffered only his second loss in seven years in the competition. He came into the contest with a 38-1 record since 2005, taking his sole loss to Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009 when he was playing on bad knees. Not only was it his first five-setter, he has only played only nine four-set matches at the French.
But Isner served huge, rocketed his forehand and came in on every opportunity, sometimes wildly, but always gamely, converting 43 of 66 of his net rushes.
"The game plan was to mix in a lot of serve and volley, which is what I did," the 6-foot-9 inch Isner said. "Any ball he left relatively short, attack and come to the net and make him pass me. Obviously he passed me a lot. He also didn't pass me a lot, and I won a lot of points at the net. That was my only shot, because I can't hang at the baseline with him. It's not possible."
Isner also played an inspiring match, consistently hustling, digging gamely into rallies even though Nadal is an expert of exposing foes from the baseline and not caving in after the Spaniard committed zero unforced errors in the fourth set.
While Nadal wasn't at his best every game and played a bit tentatively at times, he continued to try to work his taller foe over. At 30-30 in the final game, he literally had Isner almost keeling over in an end-to-end rally.
"He was pushing me around," Isner said.
"I mean, that 30-all point in the last game, I needed oxygen after that. I almost collapsed," he added. "My legs were dead. Really what it came down to is the way he played in the fourth and fifth sets. I haven't seen tennis like that ever. That's why he's No. 1 in the world and one of the greatest players ever."
The former University of Georgia All-American is a straight up guy and didn't hesitate to call his season below average. He entered the year's opening event in Auckland ranked No. 20 and has now fallen to No. 39. He's only reached one quarterfinal, in Houston, on clay and that was with the help of a bye. He was 3-5 on the clay court season entering the Nadal match and needed to get something going. What better place than the biggest clay court stage in the world: Philippe Chatrier Stadium.
"There just needed to be one instance during the course of the match to get me going, and that in my case today was when I broke him back in the second," said Isner. "Because up until then he was pretty much routining me. That's when I started to sort of believe a little bit more and started to play with more confidence and strut around more…I have to put an effort like that every time I go out there, because I know I'm a lot better than my ranking."
Many folks recall Isner's name due to his record setting 70-68 fifth set win over Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon last year in 11 hours, five minutes, when he boomed 113 aces in the first round. What few recall is that he went down exhausted to Thiemo de Bakker in the next round and never realized his dream to confront Nadal in the fourth round.
This year when he heads on to grass, he wants to put up quality wins, not time records. Maybe if he gets the chance to face defending champion Nadal at Wimbledon, it will be a different story.
"I probably only played, I don't know, six grass court matches in my career," Isner said. "I haven't had much practice on this surface, but I do think in time it can become my best surface. And I know I have six, seven more cracks at that event to hopefully put together a good result."