Rafael Nadal avoided the shock of all shocks by coming from two sets to one down to beat John Isner 6-4 6-7 (2/7) 6-7 (2/7) 6-2 6-4 in the first round of the French Open today.
The top seed and five-time champion has only ever lost one match at Roland Garros, against Robin Soderling in 2009, and today’s four-hour encounter was the first time he has played a five-set match on the Paris clay.
Nadal celebrated his victory with a leap of delight and then paid tribute to Isner, saying: “He was a very, very tough opponent, I want to congratulate him for this fantastic match and wish him all the best for the rest of the season.
“It is always very close against John. With his serve you play under pressure all the time and in the tie-breaks I didn’t play very well, perhaps because I was too nervous.”
He added: “It is important to have these tough moments, but I prefer to win in three sets for sure.”
Isner, of course, is famous for his epic 11-hour victory over Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon last year but four hours against Nadal on clay proved just too much for the 6ft 9in American.
The Spaniard looked in control when he moved a set and a break up but he was certainly short of his best and Isner capitalised, levelling and then dominating two tie-breaks to move within sight of a stunning upset.
No defending men’s champion has ever lost in the first round at Roland Garros and the idea it could be Nadal was almost unthinkable.
In the end that record remained intact as the world number one responded like a champion to set up a second-round meeting with compatriot Pablo Andujar.
Isner returned the compliment to Nadal, saying: “I had a feeling if I just gave it my all out there I could give it a good shot and maybe even win the match.
“Really what it came down to is the way he played in the fourth and fifth sets. I haven’t seen tennis like that ever. That’s why he’s number one in the world and one of the greatest players ever.”
Fifth seed Soderling, the man Nadal beat in the final 12 months ago, also had a tough workout before seeing off lucky loser Ryan Harrison 6-1 6-7 (5/7) 6-3 7-5.
The American only found out he was playing this morning when Benjamin Becker withdrew and he put up a gutsy fight, battling back from a break down in the second and fourth sets.
Eighth seed Jurgen Melzer had a comfortable afternoon against Andreas Beck, winning 6-3 6-4 6-2, but 11th seed Nicolas Almagro blew a two-set lead to lose to Lukas Kubot.
The Spaniard served for the match in the fourth set but in the end had to pay tribute to Pole Kubot for his 3-6 2-6 7-6 (7/3) 7-6 (7/5) 6-4 victory.
Almagro said: “I don’t know what happened. He started to play better and better than me at the end of the third set. I didn’t play my best tennis and finally I lost. That’s all. He’s a very aggressive player and he hit the ball really well.”
Almagro hit out at the new Babolat balls, which have replaced Dunlop this year, saying: “I don’t like the ball. The balls are very heavy. The courts are the same so I think the reason for the change is the ball.”
There were also wins for 20th seed Florian Mayer, 21st seed Alexandr Dolgopolov and 24th seed Sam Querrey – the American’s first ever victory at the French Open.