The man's problem was obvious from the moment he poked the first serve of the match into the net cord. John Isner simply looked short of practice.
In its way, this 6-0, 6-3, 6-2 annihilation by Thiemo De Bakker proved every bit as excruciating as his unprecedented, 11-hour slog with Nicolas Mahut in the first round. Staggering around the court, in withering heat, Isner threatened to set a record for the shortest match in history, less than 24 hours after winning one that might some day be measured on the geological timescale.
In the final set of that match, Mahut had infamously failed to break his serve in 68 games. Against De Bakker, it took Isner five attempts to hold even once. Receiving, meanwhile, the 6ft 9in American suddenly resembled the Cedar of Lebanon not just in stature, but in mobility.
The larky atmosphere around Court Five soon ebbed into an awkward hush. Isner had been greeted with a standing ovation. When the judge climbed her chair, she must have been tempted to pack a camping stove and electrolytes. But it was immediately apparent that our hero was spent. He lost the first set in 16 minutes.
"It was brutal," he said later. "Things were looking pretty bleak right form the get-go. When I went out there and hit that first serve, and it didn't have much behind it, I knew I was in for some trouble. I also have this pretty nasty blister, on my little toe. That was bothering me, too."
Isner requested a medical time-out, and sprawled on the grass while a masseur vainly pulled and pummelled those ursine shoulders. It seemed he would never again get to his feet, without hydraulic machinery, but you don't wait 70 games for a service break if you're a quitter. He tottered back out, and started winning the odd game with a blend of courage and resignation. But the "unforced" errors proliferated – errors, that is, he would never have made when the force was with him, against Mahut.
It was all over in 75 minutes. Against Mahut, he had fired a record 112 aces. Yesterday he could not muster one. De Bakker had himself gone to a 16-14 decider in the first round, but Isner's marathon had afforded him an extra day off. He acknowledged his fortune in drawing a tennis carcass in the second round. "That's nothing any more, 16-14," he marvelled. "I mean, 70-68, that's pretty sick."
Where Isner had been in the zone against Mahut, now he was merely spaced out. These states of mind are pretty contiguous, mind you. The spell was broken, but the trance remained. Within this void, moreover, Isner could perhaps sense a hollowness more challenging than any physical exhaustion. For this was the first day of the rest of his life. And, at 25, Isner must sense that he may never again retrieve either the same attention, or the same adrenaline. Some day he will have to come back and win this championship, or be condemned to crave forever a lost elixir.
Dealing with that reality may demand as much fortitude as his duel with Mahut. The longer they had clung on, the higher up the precipice they climbed. And the spur was no longer the summit, no longer ambition – it was dread. On the face of it, it was Mahut who took the deadly fall, but Isner may yet discover that they had been roped together all along. Having played a match that had touched the hem of eternity, they must somehow come to terms with being stripped back down to their mortal limitations – in their talent, in their careers, in their daily quest for those illusory hours of invulnerability.
In the meantime, sudden fame will doubtless offer Isner unexpected commercial opportunities. But the world No 19's priority must be to turn the hole he dug with Mahut into a foundation, rather than an abyss. "I guess it showed how good a competitor I am," he said. "Same goes for Nicolas. The way we both competed out there was pretty stellar. Off the court, I don't know how my life's going to change. But I do think I have the game to do very well here. It's just a matter of making a couple of adjustments in my game."
John McEnroe, an astonished witness of all this, recalls leaving his chair during the longest engagement of his own career, against Boris Becker. As he walked towards the baseline, he turned round – and "saw myself still sitting in the chair".
After finally succumbing on Thursday, Mahut had been sent back to the same court for a doubles match, only for play to be suspended for bad light. "I thought that was just evil, really," Isner grinned. He quit his own doubles engagement yesterday. But now he must spend the rest of his career somehow making sure that there are not two John Isners.Reuse content