Staring down Rafael Nadal on clay is one of the biggest challenges of modern sport. Doing so on Court Philippe Chatrier, Roland Garros’ centre court, has proven nearly mission impossible.
But in the first round at 2011 Roland Garros, John Isner became the first man to take the Spaniard to a fifth set in Paris. Nadal had five Coupes des Mousquetaires under his belt and a 38-1 record in the French capital — his only loss at Roland Garros had come against Robin Soderling in 2009 — but the big-serving American pushed the lefty to the brink.
Although Nadal would eventually see off the Isner threat, it certainly rocked Nadal’s boat at a venue where he was used to calm waters.
The battle was the epitome of tension, an even match that the Spaniard eventually won 6-4, 6-7(2), 6-7(2), 6-2, 6-4. After more than four hours of hard work, the Spaniard was still fending off the American’s serve, which, even on the slow surface, proved a lethal weapon.
“It was like a penalty shootout”, Nadal reflected. “Isner’s serve is practically unstoppable at the moment. In the tie-break, you’re playing under huge pressure all the time.”
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The American, who connected with 13 aces and took two one-sided tiebreaks, proved a tough nut to crack in the first round of the tournament.
Nadal was rewriting the history of the event and there was one chapter he did not want to add to the book — no Roland Garros champion has lost in the first round the year after claiming the crown. That afternoon in Paris, challenged by his opponent’s vicious serve, the Spaniard’s reflexes and concentration were relentlessly tested.
“The matches are always very close against John because he makes you play with no room for error,” admitted the Spaniard. “At times, in the tie-breaks, I didn’t play well. I was too nervous. He was a very tough opponent for me. I would like to congratulate him on a great match.”
Nadal found another gear when he needed it the most. With his back against the wall and no room for error against an intimidating rival, the Mallorcan produced a great stretch of focus in Paris. In the fourth set, he did not make an unforced error, forcing a deciding set.
With no final-set tiebreak, there were plenty of nerves for everyone involved. But the Spaniard drew on the confidence from his strong fourth set and rode that to victory.
“The way he played in the fourth and fifth set… I had never seen tennis like that,” Isner said. “That’s why he’s the World No. 1 and one of the best players of all-time”.
The sheer effort from the players is testament to the demands of the match.
“At 30/30 in the final game, I needed oxygen. I nearly collapsed. My legs were gone,” Isner said.
Nadal was pushed to the limit, but the champion battled back even harder.