- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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PARIS -- Approaching Tuesday's match against perhaps the greatest player on clay -- on Court Philippe Chatrier, the world's largest and most famous sandbox -- John Isner knew he simply had to do two things early and often: hit as many big serves as possible with those hard balls and quick conditions and follow them to net. In this way, he hoped to overpower No. 1-ranked Rafael Nadal and cut off his angles to the open court.
For four sets, this strategy worked with charming success. Isner scratched and scuffled his way into two tiebreakers, winning them both easily. The 26-year-old former Georgia Bulldog, inexplicably, found himself in a dead heat with Rafa heading into the fifth. The looming question, though, was could he run out the clock on the Spaniard before fatigue seeped into his long frame?
Rafa, one of the two fittest players in today's game, has the lungs of a long-distance swimmer and seems to get stronger as the match grows longer. It happened, almost inevitably, with Nadal surviving 6-4, 6-7 (2), 6-7(2), 6-2, 6-4 in a match that consumed 4 hours, 1 minute.
"Really, what it came down to is the way he played in the fourth and fifth sets," Isner said. "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."
Afterward, Nadal launched into an exuberant scissor-kick and an emphatic fist pump. You could see the tension and the fear and the loathing that might have been evaporating off his broad shoulders.
What was Rafa thinking when he was down two sets to one?
"I am close to be out. That's the think, no?" he said. "I didn't have a way to have the break, because I had 15-40 at the 6-5 of the second, but he's still serving fantastic, no? Two big serves. Tough, tough moments for me, no, because I only had one break point against during all the match.
"When you play against these kind of players, the pressure is there all the time. You have to play all the time very safe. So I didn't play free during all the match after the second set, no? So it was tough the rest of the match, and very happy to be through."
It was the first time he's been extended to five sets at Roland Garros, the closest thing to a womb for the Spaniard. Rafa now has won 39 of 40 matches here.
Isner did not beat the nine-time Grand Slam singles champion, the powerful man with the longest clay-court winning streak (81) and 31 titles on the dirt. But for a guy who had fashioned a record of 15-20 on clay and never advanced past the fourth round of a major, it was more than a heroic effort.
Truth be told, despite not collecting a single break of serve, he scared the bejeezus out of Nadal. Perhaps those four straight losses to the unbeaten Novak Djokovic have left his psyche frayed, because Nadal did not look like a man bidding to win his sixth French Open title in seven tries.
Previously, Rafa was 27-0 in first-round matches of Grand Slam events, and the only five-setter came nearly eight years ago, when he beat Switzerland's Ivo Heuberger. This one brought back memories of that lone loss here, to Robin Soderling in the fourth round two years ago.
And so, for the second time in less than a year, Isner brought the world of tennis to a thrilling, dead stop.
At last year's Wimbledon, you may remember, he and Nicolas Mahut locked up in the longest match in history, which stretched over three days and totaled 11 hours and 5 minutes. Isner, understandably exhausted, prevailed 70-68 in the fifth set. Frankly, he hasn't been the same since.
What you may not remember about that match was the record-shattering 113 aces Isner authored. With a height of 6-foot-9 and ridiculously long arms, Isner's target -- due to the geometry -- is bigger than almost everyone else's. As a result, he led the ATP World Tour in aces last year with 1,048.
After Rafa took the first set, Isner hung around long enough to reach a tiebreaker, which he dominated, winning seven of nine points. And then it happened again, with an eerie similarity. Isner hit a serve 232 kilometers an hour, which works out to 144 miles an hour, to take a 3-0 lead and was never really challenged.
Nadal, ever grinding, broke Isner's serve twice in the fourth set. Three hours and 10 minutes into the match, they went to the fifth and ultimate set.
It was almost anticlimactic.
With Isner slowly sagging, Nadal broke Isner in the third game. A breathtaking service return winner was followed by a nice short ball that the charging Isner couldn't get his strings on. At love-40, Isner pushed a tired-looking forehand into the top of the net.
"He was pushing me around, believe me," Isner said. "I mean, that 30-all point in the last game, I needed oxygen after that. I almost collapsed. My legs were dead. I mean, I guess tactically I could have done maybe a few things better during the course of the match, but just wasn't to be."
On the three occasions Isner had a brief whiff of a break, Nadal responded with massive answers. Serving at 3-2, 15-30, he hit a fall-away forehand cross-court winner, which left Isner shrugging and looking to his box. At 4-3, 15-all, Rafa ripped another forehand winner. In the final game, with Isner just two points from leveling the epic match, at 30-all, Nadal ended a long, nervous point by stepping into a huge forehand, which found the open court. Isner barely moved for the ball.
"Talking about if I am closer to lose than other times, maybe yes," Nadal said. "But my opinion, I had the match under control 6 4, 4 2 at the beginning. So was a little bit of mistake for me. I didn't play well at all.
"So it's OK at the beginning of a tournament, especially Roland Garros, which is complicated for me, because I have a bit of stress in the beginning. So I need to be able to cope with my stress during the first days."
Big in the big moment. That's how Rafa has always played at Roland Garros.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
12hBy Jackie MacMullan