Mahut reaches second round
NEWPORT, R.I. -- Nicolas Mahut walked onto the shadowless center court at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, where temperatures were into the 90s and still climbing, and thought, as he frequently does, about Wimbledon.
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"Nothing is worse than what I did in Wimbledon. Every match, I pray it will be easier," he told reporters. "I can't complain any more."
Mahut shrugged off temperatures reaching the mid-90s to beat Alejandro Falla 6-3, 1-6, 6-3 in the first round of the Hall of Fame Championships on Tuesday -- Mahut's first singles match since his loss to John Isner at Wimbledon launched them both to instant celebrity and landed the Frenchman's gear next door in the Hall of Fame.
Their 11-hour, 5-minute match was twice suspended because of darkness before Isner won 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68; the 138-game fifth set would itself have been the longest match in tennis history. But there was no danger of another marathon in Newport: The tournament plays three sets, with a tiebreak.
Once again battling the sun -- this time it was blazing, not setting -- Mahut needed a more traditional 1 hour, 23 minutes to get past Falla, a Colombian who came within three points of eliminating Roger Federer from Wimbledon in the first round. Also advancing were top-seeded Sam Querrey, defending champion Rajeev Ram and fellow Americans Mardy Fish and Denis Kudla.
"I was kind of struggling out there," said Querrey, who beat Jesse Levine 6-3, 6-3. "Luckily it was only 59 minutes. [I] tried to go for second-serve aces, just get out of there."
Hall of Fame CEO Mark Stenning said the tournament warned staff and fans to be prepared for the heat. Extra stations providing free water were available, and the air conditioned Hall of Fame museum and gift shop were available for fans to take refuge.
"We went through prodigious amounts of water, which was one of our mantras to the staff," Stenning said. "A lot of people came in and said, 'Where can I get some cold water? Where can I get some air conditioning?' There was usually a place where people could get out of the sun."
Australian Carsten Ball withdrew from his match against Argentina's Brian Dabul because of the heat, tournament officials said. He was trailing 1-0 in the third set.
The rest did their best to stay cool.
Mahut regularly asked for a towel to wipe away the sweat, and the request became more frequent as the match went on and the points became more important; in the final game, he wiped off his brow and racket handle virtually every point. At breaks, both players slapped ice packs on their necks and shoulders while ball boys held umbrellas to shield them from the sun.
"I had no choice. Either you play or you stay in the locker room," Mahut said. "From what I did in Wimbledon, I couldn't come out there and say, 'I can't do it. It's too hot.' Now everything's different."
Mahut broke Falla's serve in the sixth game to take the first set but then gave back the second set by losing his first service. Still, the Frenchman must have been encouraged when the chair umpire announced, just 51 minutes in, "Final set."
He fell behind 0-40 in the first game of the third set before winning with a dropshot Falla couldn't quite get to. Falla missed a passing shot wide, and then after an overpowering serve Falla hit his next return into the net.
Mahut's drop shot gave him the game, and he broke Falla's serve to take a 4-2 lead in the decisive set when the Colombian missed on three of his first four serves to fall behind 0-30. Mahut took the game, and the match soon after, giving a pump of both fists before applauding and waving to the crowd that he credited for his victory.
"Every two minutes, people come to me to congratulate me. It is an unbelievable feeling," said Mahut, who was making his fifth appearance in Newport, reaching the final in 2007.
"This time it's really different. People are coming up to me; they are really nice. I took all the energy from the people and that's why I won today," he said.
Mahut said he thinks about Wimbledon "every minute." But he still struggles with the reaction he gets, because while it reminds him of his place in history he cannot forget that he lost the Isner match.
"Even when I sleep, I'm dreaming about the match," he said. "It's a crazy story."
In his dreams, does he win?
"Sometimes," he said with a smile.
"This match is the best moment of my life, and maybe also the worst," he said. "It's still really painful. It really is. But I'm also pretty proud to be in the Hall of Fame museum."
Specifically, Mahut's shirt and one of his shoes from the Wimbledon match are on display in the Grand Slam section of the Hall. Mahut shook his head at the improbability of seeing his name next to his idol Pete Sampras and other tennis greats.
"I took a picture on my phone," Mahut said. "I sent it to my friend and said, 'Look: I'm in the Hall of Fame museum.'"
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press
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