French Open Day 5: Paul-Henri Mathieu outlasts John Isner, finds redemption
Thoughts on Day 5 of the French Open ...
• Renaissance man: Paul-Henri Mathieu began the year unranked, having missed the 2011 season because of a knee injury that required surgery. He came into Paris ranked No. 261, getting a main-draw wild card because, you know, he's French and all that. But the 30-year-old, who is most famous for an epic five-set collapse in his Davis Cup debut in 2002 that cost France the title, stood tall against John Isner and didn't fold in his 6-7 (2), 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 18-16 victory over tennis' Marathon Man in the second round on Thursday.
Knowing Mathieu's shaky history under pressure, you thought the Frenchman might blink as the match rolled on and that Isner would escape like he did when he outlasted Nicolas Mahut 70-68 in the fifth set at Wimbledon in 2010. The 10th-seeded Isner saved match point after match point with some gutsy serving and even gutsier shotmaking, and with each lost opportunity I wondered if the fates were playing a cruel trick on poor Mathieu. But Mathieu was the better player on the day, and when he finally was able to convert his seventh match point after five hours and 41 minutes (the second-longest match at Roland Garros in the Open Era), justice had been served. Finally redeemed in the eyes of his countrymen, Mathieu broke down in tears and soaked in the rapturous chanting of his name by the French crowd. It was a pretty sweet moment for a guy whose talent was never questioned, but who has been knocked for his fortitude.
''I was away from the courts for quite a while, and I came back to live moments like this," Mathieu told reporters after the match.
The defeat capped a deflating European clay swing for Isner, who lost his first match in Madrid and his second match at both Rome and Nice. Isner, whose year has included clay-court Davis Cup victories against Roger Federer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon and a run to the Indian Wells final, described himself as being in "a bit of a slump" as he heads home.
"I never felt comfortable. It's been like that since I've been in Europe, really," Isner said. "I don't know what it was. I just didn't play the right way."
Isner's exit also ends a disappointing week for the American men, who won't have a player in the third round for the first time since 2007. But, if we're being honest, it's not that surprising. Andy Roddick is still dealing with injuries. Ryan Harrison and Donald Young are still learning how to play on this stuff. And the conventional wisdom on Isner has always been that he's vulnerable in the early rounds of Grand Slam tournaments.
Thank the tennis gods for Brian Baker. At least he gave the Americans something to smile about this week.
• Andy Murray -- contrarian: You gotta love Andy Murray. When he's feeling perfectly fine, he gropes at various body parts and grimaces in pain. But when his body is actually letting him down, he refuses to stop. Murray woke up Thursday morning with excruciating back pain and said he was unable to put any weight on his left side. He pressed on and survived his second-round match against Jarkko Nieminen 1-6, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2, visibly playing through the pain and ignoring the calls for him to retire.
Murray could barely serve, spinning the ball in at 90 mph, but he got a lot of help from Nieminen. The Finn bailed out Murray with errors and he let him go for winners from the middle of the court. The funny thing is the injury forced Murray to play aggressively and go for his shots. It just really shouldn't take a debilitating back injury to coax that play out of him.
• Olympic race heats up: With Varvara Lepchenko's 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-4 upset of Jelena Jankovic -- and yes, I'm using the term "upset" very, very loosely -- the Olympic qualification scenarios for the American women became very interesting. A player needs to be in the top 56 in the June 11 rankings to qualify for Olympic singles, and no country can send more than four players. Lepchenko (No. 63 this week) , Vania King (No. 57) and Sloane Stephens (No. 70) are all vying for the fourth spot on the American team, behind Serena Williams, Christina McHale and Venus Williams. Lepchenko's win moved her past King for fourth, but Stephens can overtake her with a third-round win on Friday. Meanwhile, King is still entered in a small-grass event next week in Nottingham, England, where she could try to add some points for qualification.
• Quiet but deadly: You have to like how Li Na, Caroline Wozniacki and Petra Kvitova are taking care of business in the early rounds. Though none of them have won titles in 2012 -- a pretty surprising turn of events when you consider Wozniacki and Kvitova led the WTA with six last year -- all three have cruised through their first two rounds without dropping a set.
• Is it time for penalty kicks?: Isner's half-marathon match once again raised the issue of whether it's time for the French Open, Australian Open and Wimbledon to introduce a decisive fifth-set tiebreaker, as opposed to the traditional "win-by-two" system that allows for these epically long matches. The practical reasons are obvious: These matches can destroy players physically and the winner rarely recovers in time for his or her next match. And really, is it all that fun to watch two players stagger around a court, give up on trying to break serve and just focus on holding? Well: YES, IT TOTALLY IS! I understand the push for a tiebreaker. But when the stakes are high, I don't want to see a big match decided that way. If we're concerned about epically long matches, may I point out that the Isner/Mathieu match was still shorter than Novak Djokovic's and Rafael Nadal's brutal, near-six-hour Australian Open final that left both men barely able to stand during the trophy ceremony. Want shorter matches at Slams? Then let's play best-of-three sets. Save the shootouts for soccer.