The History-making Man (by PJ)

I expected some sort of drama in Paris yesterday, maybe even drama on Court Philppe Chatrier  – but it was really a zillion kinds of unexpected and shocking that the drama came in form of John Isner and Rafa Nadal.

On paper, a Rafa victory looks to be a given. I mean, it was Isner, whose tennis had been as inspiring and interesting as a potato growing mould in recent times. He is an American, whose game on clay is probably marginally better than mine (I kid). In fact, tell any tennis fan that John Isner is going to take a set off Clay Monster and you’ll probably be met with this response: MUAHAHHAHHAHAHAHHAHA YOU CRAAAAAY. Tell any tennis fan that John Isner could possibly beat Rafa Nadal and you’ll probably have them calling the quacks in white jackets for you.

But yesterday, the impossible nearly happened. At some point, it was on the cusp, on the brink, and John Isner was so so close, but at the same time oh so far away from creating one of the biggest upsets in history.

The first set signified nothing was out of ordinary in the World Order of Rafa – sure he only broke Isner once, but Isner’s serve wasn’t exactly easy to penetrate. When Rafa secured an early break in the second set, I was all – yeap, this is going to be routine for him.

Until John broke back. Okay, cool beans, nice going Johnny, but hey, you’re only delaying the inevitable. Even when it went into a tie-break, I was confident that Rafa was still going to take the set. I mean, it’s RAFA. Right?

Nope. A moment of tension from Rafa – a loose forehand, and Isner had the upper-hand. And somehow, he sensed the universe shifting, parting its way, shining its light – Johnny, this is your time – and he didn’t crack under pressure like I expected. He hung on, served spectacularly, and in a blink of an eye, before I even had time to react with HUH WHUT, Big John had set 2 under his belt.

Rafa has only ever played on opening round tie-break in Paris – and that was back in his debut in 2005. He has never lost a set first round. John has a slice of history tucked under his cap. But that was not enough for him. He wanted more.

A tight third set saw no breaks of serve, and again, it went into a tie-break. At this point, I was starting to think that maybe John could possibly take this set. And John thought the same, and obviously Rafa thought the same. In a very un-Rafa like manner, his forehand deserted him at the time it mattered most. At the time it mattered most, his mental fortitude seemed to have slip just a notch. And that was all John needed – capitalising on two errors from Rafa, he took the set, giving Rafa only two points in the tiebreak.

Rafa Nadal, Clay Monster and defending champion, was down two sets to one in the first round. And the tennis world exploded into a world of mayhem and disbelief…could Rafa Nadal actually lose this? Isner was playing the tennis of his LIFE. He was outserving Rafa, his volleys and drop-shots clicking and working, and it was phenomenal play from him. I haven’t seen him this pumped and determined and this WANTING since 2009.

But of course, I’d be an idiot to ever discount Rafa Nadal on anything, much less on his favourite surface and his turf. John wanted this, but so did Rafa – and then we see the matador, never-say-die spirit creeping back into his game. In my opinion, Isner’s best bet would really be to hang with Rafa and take it to another tie-break. But Rafa would have none of that. Taking advantage of a tiring Isner, Rafa started upping his play and firing blistering winners. An ill-timed double-fault brought up break points for Rafa that he had no intention of wasting, breaking John in his opening service game, and breaking him again to take the set.

And so Rafa was to play his first 5-setter in Roland Garros, and win his first 5-setter if he was to survive. He secured an early break, but Isner wasn’t going to let him have it easy. Saving one match point on his serve, he made Rafa serve out the match – even chasing him neck-to-neck in points – 15-15, 30-30, 40-30…and then more than four hours after Rafa Nadal took Philippe Chatrier for what everyone thought was a easy routine match – he finally closed out the match, and sank onto his knees in relief and joy.

And 2AM in Melbourne, I was huddled in my blanket with a lot of mixed feelings. I rarely get overly emotional about matches that don’t involve Roger Federer. But this match was a reminiscent of the Hewitt/Nalbandian match at AO this year – where both guys just showed so much heart, so much grit, and just baring their soul out there on the court, every emotion, every feeling, every bit of desire incorporated in their forehands, backhands and volleys, in every chase and scramble for the ball. It was an occasion when I just want both of them to win, and when I am reminded that sport can be so cruel sometimes.

Rafa admitted that the pressure got into his head when he was down two sets to one – and I think that was quite a rare occurrence for him , just because he is such mental giant.

I’m close to be out…that’s the thing…no idea (about) a way to have it back, I had 15-40 at 6-5 at the second…but he was serving fantastic, two big serves…tough moment for me…didn’t play well in the tie-breaks, that was my opinion.

He did try to downplay the fact he was taken to five-sets:

For the rest of the match…I think I was 6-4, 4-2, (manage) to control everything without playing fantastic, but I never play fantastic first round here so wasn’t nothing unexpected…(to play this) kind of player, have the pressure all the time, I didn’t play free during that match after the second set – it was tough.

I didn’t think Rafa would lose if he won the 4th set, and he evidently thought the same, citing the turning point in the match was when he broke in the 4th.

Turning point was the first break of the fourth – that break was very important for me…(There) was no tiebreak in 5th so I felt a little but more confident. Break of the 5th was fantastic, I played best game of the match for me…

John agreed that the 4th and 5th sets were probably the turning point, and talked about how well Rafa was serving:

The way he played in the 4th and the 4th set, I’ve never seen tennis played like that, ever, that’s why he…(one of) the greatest players ever. Court’s pretty slow so I felt like I have success coming into the net, but on his service games he wasn’t (giving me) the opportunity. I felt like if I am in control of the point, then I do well…(tough) to get on the offense when he was serving.

I believe that Rafa winning is good for tennis – good for the tournament (and good for stopping Satan…) – ultimately that is the result I had hoped for. But seeing the big guy walking off-court, close to tears, after giving it his all – how can one remain unmoved?

First-round losses are hard to take. Never mind that they were to world no.1s and clay monsters, but the fact is Isner was up two sets to one. It was on the line where it could have swing either way. But I do hope that John takes it with him that he stretched one of the best clay players ever. In doing so, he played some of the best tennis of his life. He has to realise that he CAN be playing this kind of tennis day-in, day-out.

He made history again yesterday, even if the outcome was not what he wanted. As hard as it is, I hope he takes this defeat as an inspiration, because he was nothing less than inspiring on Philippe Chatrier yesterday.

Tid-bit style wrap coming next, to avoid a long, rambly tennis essay.

– PJ

P.S. pictures from

P.P.S Quotes are transcribed by myself from the interview clips featured on RG website. If you haven’t heard already, RG has caved into the International Tennis Writers’ Association NOT to release press transcripts for the fans/public and let them (writers) provide the “relevant quotes”. Well I refuse to use their “relevant quotes”. If you have a moment and you are not happy with this turn of events, write to ITWA voicing your opinion about their monopolising dictatorship on the players’ words.


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About PJ

I'm a tennis nut. Loves watching and freaking out over tennis, and as of late, writing about tennis. As a player though, I'm terrible. My other interests includes reading (pretty much will give any genre a go), checking out films, crafting (making cards, scrapbooking etc), eating/food (specifically searching for the perfect chendol outside Malaysia). I'm also trying to find my own perfect corner in this world!

3 responses to “The History-making Man (by PJ)”

  1. flo says :

    Well done, thanks for this.

  2. Katarina_YYZ says :

    Good for tennis? The guy leapt around and “Vamos”ed at Isner’s double fault! What will it take for people to see Nadal as he really is? 😕

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