PARIS — If you have a dinner date, do not play a match with John Isner, you are likely to be late. Actually, in Paris at this time of year, the days are so long that people move without noticing it into Mediterranean time, and they rarely dine before 10. Even so, you would have been hard put to be on time the other day if you were waiting for John Isner to let anyone get past his service game. No matter how often he fell behind, he came back and tied with his mighty serve. And the match went on. Until finally he could no longer make his serve mighty. He was tired.
Isner will not be playing any more tennis this season at Roland-Garros, the legendary site of the Internationaux de France, as the French Open formally is known. At 30-40 he hit a forehand overboard into the alley, one of too many such sloppy shots to count this evening, and it was over. It was 9:15, 21 hours 15, as they say here, and he and Paul-Henri Mathieu, a wild-card entry, had been on Chatrier stadium’s center court (actually its only court) for five hours and 41 minutes. Some people were beginning to wonder what they really were doing there.
Which is not a polite question and it is irrelevant. They were competing in the second round of the most famous clay court tournament in France, and they were holding up a scheduled match between Maria Sharapova and Ayumi Morita: serious work. But it is not unfair or discourteous to remark that by the time they reached the 34th game of the fifth set of their match, they were not playing tournament tennis. They could not. Although they are young, fit, strong, and willing, they were running out of gas, physically. On the mental side, you have to hand it to them, they stayed focused, disciplined — Isner especially, who refused to be distracted by the hysterical crowd, which applauded his good plays but went completely bonkers every time Mathieu got ahead.
What is more relevant is the kind of match they played. With all due respect to both of them for their resilience, particularly Paul-Henri Mathieu, who got himself back into the game after a very serious knee injury that sidelined him for more than a year, the tennis they played was awful, especially but not only in that fifth set. They put easy (for them) strokes into the net, sent balls flying wide and long (and out of bounds), looked at shots as they bounced past them, and generally and as a rule, adopted a game plan based on the idea that the best offense is the defense and the way to win at tennis is to wait for the other guy to lose.
And yet, amazingly, the match turned into the kind of nerve-wracking drama that makes legendary events in sports. The grit on the red clay more than made up for the sloppiness of the play, at least in terms of theater. Isner was far away the favorite, ranked 11th, a much-improved and improving player at 27, with a reputation for a devastating first serve and an increasingly effective baseline game, as well as, due to his height (six-six) and reflexes (basketball is his other sport), a dangerous net game. Mathieu, 30 and ranked 261st, has been a perennial wild card, not known as a tournament winner, almost completely winless against high-ranked players.
From this perspective, actually, it would have made sense to root for Mathieu as the underdog. But with the drubbing Jesse Levine took earlier in the day, Isner was the last American who had a chance to change his position on the bracket; and with the crowd roaring for Mathieu (not during play) — understandably, perhaps, as France has not had a winner here since Yanick Noah (father of the Chicago Bulls star) won in the early 1980s — you had to give the big fellow some moral support.
As a tennis power, America is definitely on the slope, sliding downward. I dare not say anything about this abysmal situation because if the word gets out, the Federals will get involved, just as they did in public education, and then we shall be in the cellar for at least two generations. But if you can keep your voice down, you should pass the word along that this is ridiculous. The French are way ahead of us this year at the French Open, which makes no sense. I understand they helped us — gave us key support — during the unpleasantness with England, and we are eternally grateful, but that was, face it, a long time ago. What have they done for us lately? Here at Roland-Garros, they are advancing their champions. Not only the new endurance champ Ph.-H. Mathieu, but several of their big men, such as Gilles Simon and Richard Gasquet and Julien Benneteau, plus the two Nicolas, Devilder and Mahut (yes, the same who lost to Isner in the epic 11 hour Wimbledon match a couple seasons back), are moving on toward the next round. And there is the mighty Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who finished off Cedric-Marcel Stebbe (a German) yesterday after being delayed the previous evening by rain. There is also Daid Goffin, who is Belgian but that is like calling Andy Murray a Scot, fair but irrelevant when you are talking about who is the Top Country, That is wonderful for them, but it would be easier to appreciate if our guys were doing the same.
A famous French aphorism holds that le style, c’est l’homme, style bespeaks the man. This is to be understood in connection with another one, l’habit ne fait pas le moine, the cassock makes not the monk. Just as superficial appearances are just that, a man’s style, if it is real, expresses a deep truth about his character.
Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal, two of the serious contenders for the trophy here, played magnificent tennis yesterday against courageous and resourceful opponents who simply were not at their levels. But Nadal and his Uzbek opponent, Dennis Istomin, who at 25 is his exact contemporary, played heroic tennis together and separately at the charming and intimate Lenglen stadium, at least for the better part of two sets, after which it has to be admitted Nadal, completely warmed up, put the weaker player between two slices of bread (6-0, 20 minutes) and had him for a snack. But the first two sets were true, with battles back and forth and saves and brilliant tactics even when they failed. Murray and Jarkko Nieminen likewise were out of each other’s league, but they put on a brilliant show at Chatrier. Nieminen, a veteran journeyman from Finland, has a style as different from Murray’s as can be. Murray plays a powerful, daring and yet graceful tennis, all movement and speed, master of his court like a sea captain his deck, quick, strategic, resourceful. The Finn by contrast has a stubborn defensive style that grows on you as you appreciate how tenacious a character it reveals.
This is what American tennis is going to have to do, if it ever wants to return to the glories of yore. Grounding kids in the fundamentals, we must then let them be themselves, in all the diverse contrasting ways that they should be, in sports as in any other activity. Not everybody can be Nadal, hard charging from start to finish and yet supremely intelligent in his court sense and tactical cleverness. All the better, let them be someone else: themselves.
Well, you will say, John Isner plays his own game, it is a big-serving game that depends on getting the last shot over the net, little else, but it is certainly his. But no, that is not a game worthy of singular definition. He, like others who have done poorly this year — and I am not downgrading all the hard work and admirable effort they have put into joining a very elite group, the 200, 100, 50, 20, and even 10 best players on the planet — learned something very well but that is all they learned, at least as far as they seem willing to show us. They learned to serve. Or they learned to pound away with killer topspin forehands. Or they learned to get almost anybody with a fantastic crosscourt backhand — anybody, that is, except the kind of opponent they encounter at these tournaments. This is admirable and fantastic and their teachers should be proud. But if we were doing the equivalent in other fields, we would no longer be the top country.
Innovation, adaptation, constant learning, that is what we do in the fields where we dominate. When you do those things you have a personality, you have a personal style, you are unafraid of being who you are. And you will win.
Well, enough of all that. There are still two of ours in the running, Christina McHale and Sloane Stephens (both of whom beat compatriots to move on in the standings over the past two days), so give the young ladies a round of applause and wish them well. It is tough out there, and no one will reward you for not thinking for yourself.