Nadal defeated the American, 6-4, 6-7 (2-7), 6-7 (2-7), 6- 2, 6-4. Nadal, playing his first five-set match at Roland Garros, would have lost his No. 1 ranking on the ATP World Tour to Novak Djokovic of Serbia if he hadn’t won today.
“It was very difficult,” Nadal, a Spaniard who is seeking to tie Bjorn Borg’s record of six titles in Paris, said in a courtside interview. “His serve was almost unstoppable. I want to congratulate him on a fantastic match.”
Nadal, 24, avoided becoming the first defending champion to lose in the opening round at Roland Garros. He now has a 39-1 record at the French Open, his only loss coming in 2009 to Robin Soderling in the round of 16. He’s never lost in the opening round of a major.
Nadal had entered the French Open with two clay court titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, which was his worst performance on the slow surface coming into the year’s second Grand Slam event.
“If I just put forth a good effort and give it my all out there, I had a feeling I could give him a good shot and maybe even win the match,” Isner said at a news conference. “I don’t need to take the court if I don’t believe that.”
Isner is best known as the winner of the longest match in tennis history, an 11-hour, 5-minute defeat of Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon last year. The 26-year-old American is ranked 39th on the ATP World Tour.
Nadal seemed in control of the match, leading 3-1 in the second set, when Isner broke back for 4-4. The American won the second set in the tiebreak as Nadal committed unforced errors from the baseline.
In the third set, Isner kept Nadal under pressure by rushing to the net. He overcame two set points at 6-5 down with a pair of service winners. The American raced to a 3-0 lead in the tiebreak as he sent serves of up to 229 kilometer-per-hour (142 miles-per-hour) past the defending champion.
With the crowd shouting ‘Rafa, Rafa’, the Spaniard dumped a forehand into the net to hand Isner four set points. Isner shouted and pumped his fist after he took a 2-sets-to-1 lead with a forehand return winner.
“I didn’t play free in the entire match,” Nadal told a news conference. “It was tough. I am playing with a lot of pressure, this is very important tournament for me.”
Nadal reduced his error count to zero and broke Isner’s serve twice in the fourth set, after committing 21 errors in the first three. The left-hander evened the match 2-2 with a forehand winner.
Nadal screamed ‘Si’ after getting a break for 2-1 with a forehand in the net. With his uncle and long-time coach, Toni Nadal, clapping in the courtside stands, the world’s top-ranked player got his first match point as Isner hit a forehand into the net on his own serve at 5-3 down. The American stayed in the match with another net rush, and held serve for 5-4.
Nadal then served out the match, capping the win when Isner sent a backhand wide after 4 hours, 1 minute.
“He was pushing me around,” Isner said. The American added he “needed oxygen,” during the final game. “I almost collapsed. My legs were dead.”
Nadal said his 14-3 record playing five-set matches had given him confidence.
“It was the first time in Roland Garros, but I have played five-setters at Wimbledon and other Grand Slams,” said the nine-time major winner. “I have a good record in five- setters.”
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