John Isner seems to like to cause a stir! Not content with having played the longest match in the history of tennis at Wimbledon last year against Nicolas Mahut (11’05”), the lofty American (6’9”) almost ousted King Nadal in the first round of the French Open. But not quite. Down two sets to one, the Spaniard managed to turn things around.
The Mallorcan then gave a clear glimpse of his ambitions for the fortnight—to try and equal Bjorn Borg’s record of titles won here (6), and not to become the first defending champion to be knocked out in the first round at Roland-Garros! Against John Isner, who was loudly supported by the spectators on Philippe-Chatrier Court, “Rafa” finally took the match in five sets.
6-4 6-7(2) 6-7(2) 6-2 6-4 in 4’01”.
At his “second home” at Roland-Garros, Nadal had never before had to play a five setter. Last year, during his triumphant path through the tournament, he had not dropped a single set. Ditto in 2008. Before this match against John Isner, “Rafa” had only lost 10 sets in six appearances in the tournament, and never more than three per edition. Suffice to say that John Isner, even though he lost, achieved a great feat by giving the Mallorcan a scare.
This laborious start, compared to previous years, is a good reflection of the world number one’s start to the clay season. He has only won two new titles on this surface in 2011 (Barcelona and Monte Carlo), and was beaten twice in a final by Novak Djokovic, in Madrid and Rome.
Despite losing the first set, Isner held strong and forced the world number one into a pair of tiebreaks, where his big serve helped him put Nadal on constant pressure.
But with only six unforced errors the rest of the way—none in the fourth set—Nadal proved he is still the man to beat on clay.
"I didn't play well in the tiebreak, and I didn't have chances to have the break," Nadal said. "When you play against these kind of players, the pressure is there all the time. You have to play all the time very safe."