The first week of the French Open is behind us and already we have the match of the tournament. No it is not Gael Monfils and his five set opening round win against Tomas Berdych nor his later five set loss to another Thomas who likes to wear short shorts aka Tommy Robredo. No tennis fans, the match everyone is talking about is simply called “Haasner”.
That’s right. Just when you thought it was safe to make lunch or dinner plans prior to a John Isner match, the lanky North Carolinian decided to keep himself, his opponent Tommy Haas, and everybody else hanging around longer than anyone planned in a third round meeting that looked over, at least it did after Haas won the first two sets, but in reality was only just beginning.
After Isner won the third set, he got embroiled in a surreal fourth set that saw him save 12 match points, mostly on his ability to bomb big serve after big serve to get out of trouble eliciting ooh’s and aah’s from the Parisian locals crowded into Court 1 also known as the “bullring”. Haas helped Isner’s cause by double faulting on his own serve when he held a match point in the fourth set tiebreak. Isner went on to win the set forcing things to a deciding fifth with no tiebreak.
Immediately, talk of Isner’s three day marathon encounter with Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon began while Haas and Isner found themselves edging closer to advantage scoring with each passing game. Commentators calling the spectacle on NBC started using the word “disturbing” to describe how each man was being forced to push themselves physically in a set with no tiebreak in sight. Pundits used similar words three years ago during the “Isnut” saga, but the tennis powers that be have yet to change anything about having no fifth set tiebreaks at the Majors except for Flushing Meadows.
Though he jumped out to a 4-1 lead in the fifth set, Isner eventually ran out of gas, stamina and everything else while his much older opponent looked ready to play three more sets. Haas caught up to him and then at 8-all, a weary Isner dropped serve. That allowed Haas to finally serve out the 7-5, 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 6-7 (10), 10-8 win.
Four hours and 37 minutes it took. And it did break a long held ATP record. Isner saved the most match points in a men’s match since Adriano Panatta erased 11 en route to beating Kim Warwick in Rome back in 1976.
That’s small comfort for Isner who this time finds himself on the losing end of a Major marathon. Well not quite a marathon like “Isnut”, more like a half-marathon. After all, it did wrap up in one day.
“These long matches seem to follow me,” said a devastated Isner afterwards.
They certainly do. Isner lost last year in the second round to France’s Paul Henri-Mathieu in a five set, five hour and 41 minute grind that was the second longest match, by time, in French Open history.
Every player hopes to create a little history in their career, but I doubt Isner wants his “Marathon Man” reputation to be his lasting claim to fame. Unfortunately at the age of 28, it certainly looks like it will be. Meanwhile Haas, who is once again cracking on the door of the top ten, will be viewed as an inspiration to guys of a certain age similar to when Jimmy Connors reached the semis of the U.S. Open back in 1991. We may be “old,” be we’re not done yet.
The focus this next week at Roland Garros will be on Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and, of course, Rafael Nadal on if they can add a French Open title to their growing Grand Slam resumes. But it is easy to forget that the guys behind them, with very little chance of ever winning just one Major, are working on their legacies as well.
How does someone who competes in the “Golden Age” of the ATP, but never tasted Grand Slam gold, want to be remembered? That all depends on the person and their individual goals. For Haas, he is proving that it really is never too late to go for it. Even if Haas doesn’t get to a Major final or even return to the top ten, his longevity and ability to compete and beat the young “whippersnappers” is making up in some small way for the time he lost to injuries.
But for Isner, what is his legacy? Well if he stopped tomorrow, it wouldn’t be his ATP titles, reaching the top ten, or being U.S. No. 1. Nope, he would be remembered for that guy who played in “that match that would never end.” and for being able to reign down winning serve after winning serve against Haas today, like a sideshow sharpshooter act at a weekend carnivale.
Maybe Isner will achieve something bigger to help his cause. But if he doesn’t and ends his career being known more for spectacle rather than success, then that will be a even bigger disappointment than the one he is feeling right now.