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Isner is known as the â€œMarathon manâ€ â€“ such is his predilection for the long matches that in his case sometimes even stretch for days. Today came close to being one more such occasion but with perhaps 15-30 minutes of daylight remaining, Paul-Henri Mathieu let the French crowd leave as a happy bunch, incredibly ousting Isner 6-7(2), 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 18-16. The home favourite was given a wildcard for this event having spent all of last year and a fair bit of 2012 out with an injury. If there was an injury there was little sign of that as he topped the giant American in a 5 hour 41 minute Battle Royale, that ended up being the longest match ever on Phillippe Chatrier and the second longest in French Open history behind the 6hr 33min Clement-Santoro war of attrition. The Frenchman himself is earning quite a reputation at these matches that go the distance with a 4th straight such win. In the first round he had recorded his first ever comeback from the dead to recover from being two sets to love down to eventually win at a canter 6-0 in the 5th.
There was definitely no light canter today against the big serving Isner. The 10th seed won the first set putting in an exceptional tie-break only for Mathieu to strike back to go up two sets to one before Isner restored parity taking the match into a decider. The Frenchman had worked out his approach and executed well keeping the big American on the move. Isner naturally isnâ€™t the most fleet footed but moves well offensively. By not letting the American control points especially on the return, Mathieu ensured that he stayed competitive all along.
The 5th set began with the momentum and history in favour of Isner. Big servers tend to have an advantage in these situations and the American has been in this situation plenty of times before. However Mathieu did have one thing in his favour â€“ he was serving first â€“ which meant that Isner would have the added pressure of serving with the match on the line when push came to shove. As the set wore on, every service game of the Frenchman was an event. Paul-Henri as mentioned earlier has a definite sense of theatre about him and was egged on by the Paris crowd. Facing his lone breakpoint in the 5th set, the wildly cheering crowd went deathly quiet before erupting as one with a collective uproar of â€œYeahâ€ in unison when the Frenchman put away the volley. In stark contrast every service game of John Isner seemed to be an eventuality. The abiding memory in the Isner service game was of Mathieu rising on tiptoe to somehow hit head high returns time and again as he kept attempting to keep the pressure on the Isner serve.
The effort seemed to have paid of in the 22nd game of the set as he opened up 0-40 on the Isner serve. Johnâ€™s response was a fiery three points lasting a total of 7 shots that quickly put paid to the French hopes. Having said that it did seem that this game was the tide turner in the match. Suddenly it was Paul-Henri Mathieu who was holding with ease while Isner seemed to be the one who had to put in the effort to hold. At 14-15, Mathieu brought up 2 more match points as he went up 15-40 on his opponents serve. Isner snuffed them out in a trice too and at that stage the feeling was that Mathieu had created but just been unable to close out the chances â€“ through no real fault of his own â€“ it was Isner who took those points by the scruff of the neck.
Mathieu however stayed focussed and continued to hold serve. After the match, he said that â€œEvery time I needed to concentrate and focus again on my serveâ€ and that was crucial because a single lapse in concentration was all that would have been needed for Isner to wrap it up in a trice. Instead it was Isner who seemed the more fatigued as he went hand on knees, bent at the waist multiple times towards the end of the match. The American has shown fatigue in the past only to somehow rise above it and let his fearsome serve keep him in it, but not today. In the 34th game of the final set, Isnerâ€™s resolve broke down once again as he gave up another brace of match points to the Frenchman. He saved one but finally drifted a forehand wide on the next to give Mathieu a deserved victory on his 7th matchpoint.
"I remember Mahut's match, so I just couldn't believe it was over," admitted Mathieu after the game. This time it was a Frenchman on the right side of the scoreline. The wildcard next faces the winner of the suspended match between Marcel Granollers and Malek Jaziri. The Tunisian kept his hopes alive against his 20th seeded opponent by levelling the match taking it into a deciding set to be contested tomorrow. Mathieu will be glad of the dayâ€™s break as it gives him some time to recuperate both physically and mentally from his challenges today.
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