PARIS — This, then, is who John Isner is for now: The Marathon Man of Tennis, the guy who plays and plays and plays, for hours on end, until the last set seems interminable.
At Wimbledon two years ago, he won 70-68 in the fifth, the longest set and match in tennis history. At Roland Garros on Thursday, as afternoon gave way to evening, the 10th-seeded American lost 7-6 (2), 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 18-16 to Paul-Henri Mathieu of France in the second round, a 5-hour, 41-minute test of stamina and attention span.
This one goes in the books as the second-longest match, by time, in French Open history.
“I just didn’t get it done. I felt like I got caught in patterns that weren’t ideal for me,” Isner said. “I wasn’t going for my shots at certain points in the match, and that comes from a little bit of a lack of confidence.”
If the 6-foot-9 Isner, who led Georgia to an NCAA title, is going to become more than a novelty act, he needs to win encounters like Thursday’s, and not because of the duration but because it was a first-week Grand Slam match against a player ranked 261st who got into the field thanks to a wild-card invitation from the tournament.
“I dug deep,” said the 30-year-old Mathieu, who hadn’t played in a major tournament since the 2010 U.S. Open because of a left knee injury that forced him off tour all of last year. “I was away from the courts for quite a while, and I came back to live moments like this.”
He helped provide easily the most intrigue on a day that featured straight-set wins for defending champions Rafael Nadal and Li Na.
But it also ended after 9 p.m., forcing organizers to postpone until today the match involving Maria Sharapova that was supposed to follow on Court Philippe Chatrier.