- Whit Sheppard
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PARIS -- This couldn't have been the way Rafael Nadal wanted to ring in his 20th birthday. When his last guest, Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu, left the party after nearly five hours, the gracious host trudged slowly to the net and magnanimously bowed to his vanquished opponent.
Mathieu wasn't too concerned, though, about overstaying his welcome Saturday afternoon on Court Central at Roland Garros, cheered on by 15,000-plus throaty compatriots to an inspired performance in a third-round match at the French Open. The scoreline will read 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 in favor of the majestic Mallorcan, but it's the courtside clock that gives a truer reading of the struggle that went into Nadal's victory -- his 56th consecutive on clay, extending a record he broke earlier this week.
Through point after point of lengthy baseline rallies, the sort that eventually drive Nadal's victims into demoralizing exhaustion, Mathieu stayed with his opponent for 4 hours, 53 minutes of exhilarating clay-court tennis, the sort that the 24-year-old from Strasbourg seemed destined for when he first burst onto the scene as a 20-year-old in 2002, winning two titles and marking himself as a player to watch.
But a crushing five-set loss from two sets up against Mikhail Youzhny in the decisive rubber match of the 2002 Davis Cup final against Russia and nagging injuries seemed to have a prolonged negative effect on Mathieu. His subsequent results have been decisively journeyman-like, with a career record of just under .500 (92-96) coming into this tournament.
A 93-minute first set kicked things off and the marathon built from there. Mathieu took the early one-set lead on his third set point when Nadal uncharacteristically missed a forehand drive. The thing is, the amount of effort it takes to win a set off of Nadal is oftentimes prohibitive. On the second set point alone, Mathieu hit three shots that would have been winners against most mortals, but each time Nadal chased the balls down and finally summoned an error from Mathieu.
The question remained: How close and how long could Mathieu stay with last year's titleist, who won more titles as a teenager (16) than every player but the one who established that mark -- six-time French Open winner Bjorn Borg.
Nadal doesn't get out-muscled by anyone on tour, at least not yet, but his all-out style of play is very likely to take a toll over the long term on his still-growing frame. He's grown two inches to 6-foot-1 since his win over Mariano Puerta in last year's final, and his legacy has grown commensurately as he's added to his record-breaking streak.
It could take something unforeseen to put an end to Nadal's streak and today he was almost waylaid by, of all things, a banana he munched on during a third-set changeover. A point into the ninth game, he pointed to his throat and called for the trainer. Mathieu was initially confused and, after the match, not thrilled about the delay in play.
"I think you have to wait at least [until] the end of the game to receive your treatment, not during the game at 15-All, 5-4 in the third set," Mathieu said. "I mean, this is tough."
Nadal said, "I take a little bit banana, like this. I feel [it] slip in the mouth and stay here (pointing to his neck).
"Just when I had the problem with the banana, the public [was whistling]. Sorry, not my fault. When I finish the match, the public [whistling], too. That's not nice because we play a nice match, a very good match."
Asked if he'd ever played another player with the sort of physicality that Nadal brings to the game, Mathieu, a thoughtful sort who's normally thorough in his post-match thoughts, simply answered, "No, he's the only one."
Two-time French Open finalist Alex Corretja knows what it takes to do well in Paris and commented on Nadal's physical skills and his mental approach.
"He's one of the greatest-ever physically," Corretja said. "Physically he's very good; mentally he's even better. The main reason he's winning these matches is mental."
Mathieu may have done Nadal's subsequent opponents here a favor. In the most physically demanding of the four majors, Mathieu kept him on-court for as long as it takes to fly commercially from Los Angeles to Washington.
Lleyton Hewitt, the 14th seed who once personified the type of tireless, retrieving tennis that Nadal has now elevated to an art form, is next up for Nadal in the round of 16.
Mathieu, though, was skeptical about his perceived contribution to the Tire-Out-Rafael-Nadal-Fund. "He's used to playing long matches. I remember in Monte Carlo he played four hours [in the final against Roger Federer]. I don't think he's going to be tired. I don't think it's going to make any difference."
Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter who is covering the French Open and Wimbledon for ESPN.com. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com.
Rafael Nadal extended his record winning streak on clay to 56 matches. Whit Sheppard writes on what might be the most memorable win to date during Nadal's streak.