This was about the big serve and relentlessness of the marathon man, John Isner. It was about some mysterious new tennis balls that fly like missiles, and no one is used to. But most of all, it was about the unease of Rafael Nadal.
He’s trying to protect his No. 1 ranking, trying to catch Bjorn Borg in history. And he’s trying to fight off Novak Djokovic.
Nadal can hear him from the other side of the draw.
So it all added up, and Isner nearly pulled off what could have been the greatest upset in tennis’ history Tuesday in the first round of the French Open. Instead, Nadal won 6-4, 6-7 (7-2), 6-7(7-2), 6-2, 6-4.
“The most difficult thing,’’ Nadal told reporters afterward, “was everything.’’
Nadal is in some real trouble here. He couldn’t get comfortable with the flight of the new Babolat balls that they’re using, couldn’t feel his own trademark spin. Meanwhile, a day earlier, Djokovic showed amazing calm and confidence in his first-round match. Advantage Djokovic.
It’s true that if you’re feeling a certain unease, playing Isner makes it worse. With his crushing serve and freakish height and angles, you can’t find a rhythm. He wins points, he loses points, and it’s hard to get any control.
On top of that, the clay at Roland Garros is faster than it used to be, and now the air is warmer, and they haven’t had any rain. All of that makes the court faster, and less like a traditional slow. . .red clay. . .French Open. To that, U.S. players say one thing: Thank you.
But also, the French Open has sold away some of its identity by signing a five-year deal with Babolat to use the ball, even though no one knows anything about it. Players say it is hard and fast. They might get used to it, but haven’t so far.
So without the feel of a French Open, American players, who don’t know how to play on red clay, are able to play tennis USA style. Sam Querrey won. American teenager Ryan Harrison, who lost in qualifying but got into the main draw as a lucky loser when someone else withdrew, took a set off No. 5 Robin Soderling. Vania King beat 22nd seed Dominika Cibulkova.
And Isner got to play American tennis against Nadal. For some reason, Isner stayed way behind the baseline in the first set, as if he were going to attempt to out-rally Nadal.
By the second set, he started attacking and came to the net. Nadal couldn’t get a feel for how much spin would work on the ball. These balls seem to fluff out in a hurry, meaning they change game to game. Nadal’s precision wasn’t working, and his heavy spin wasn’t reliable. It wasn’t consistent enough to keep the ball in play for the sharp angles that would make a slow Isner run.
When Isner went up two sets to one, he was outplaying Nadal.
Meanwhile, Nadal was adjusting to the combination of the ball and Isner’s serve. At 6-foot-9, Isner serves at an angle roughly the equivalent of something falling from a second-story window. Nadal was returning from way back, despite pleas from his coaching box. That allowed Isner to slice off his own angles for aces.
So Nadal finally stepped up, and from there, he raised his game. It reached a level of tennis that Isner said he had never seen.
Maybe this was just one of those moments you thank God for surviving, and then move on and forget about it. But I’m not sure it was a fluke. Nadal has a lot of new things to get used to, and not just the ball.
“Tough, tough moments for me,’’ Nadal said. “I played too nervous in my opinion.’’
How much of that was because of Djokovic? He might be better than Nadal now; this is the proving ground. About 120 days ago, Nadal went into the Australian Open trying to win his fourth consecutive major. Since then, Djokovic hasn’t lost a match, including four wins over Nadal and an Australian.
Nadal can tie Bjorn Borg’s mark of six French titles now. If he wins, he’ll have won four of the past five majors, keeping his hold on the sport. If Djokovic wins, then there is a new king.
Still, Nadal has time to settle down and settle in. He has 12 days till the final, and I still think he’ll get there. But his invincibility is gone.
What stood out Tuesday was his lack of certainty. Everyone knows Djokovic is dominating the tour, but I hadn’t realized how deeply he is already into Nadal’s mind.