Top seed Rafael Nadal downed John Isner 6-4, 6-7(2), 6-7(2), 6-2, 6-4 in a minute over four hours of scintillating tennis on Philippe Chatrier Court. In a pulsating first-round match, the young American pushed the world no.1 all the way, coming within a set of causing one of the most memorable upsets in French Open history.
If the Majorcan is to go on and equal Bjorn Borg's record of six French Open triumphs this year, he will no doubt look back on this gutsy performance with pride. He will also be forgiven a shudder at the memory, because he came perilously close to a humiliating first-round exit at the hands of his brave opponent.
Should Isner go on to fulfil his potential as a top 10 player, he will also look back at the lessons he learned from Nadal on how to hold your nerve under pressure and keep believing when your game, and a crucial match, is slipping away.
It takes a giant of a man to dwarf Nadal, and at 6'9" that is exactly what Isner is. Given an almost unfair advantage by his great height, the world no.39 is the giraffe to Rafa's bull. His outsized frame is most evident when he serves, reaching high, high, high before crashing the ball down, but also when he receives the ball, legs akimbo like a giraffe at a water hole.
At first, it looked as though Nadal would be helpless as Isner's opening services flew past him at impossible speeds (232 km/hour at their fastest). The nine-time Grand Slam champion refused to be fazed though, and as soon as a service did come within reach he seemed to take even greater pleasure than usual in slamming them back.
When the ball stayed in the court long enough for open play, the Majorcan dominated, his awesome core body strength and punishing accuracy helping him to break Isner and wrap up the first set 6-4. A break up in the second set and leading 4-3, Nadal had not been troubled on his service and the 26-year-old American's body language suggested his belief was fast fading.
Yes you can!
Then from the fans came an Obama-esque cry of "John, yes you can!" The crowd, sensing it was now or never, responded with cheers of support, and incredibly, out of nowhere, Isner broke back. His size gives him another crucial advantage against Nadal that other players would die for - an ability to take the ball at hip rather than chest height, giving him a measure of control over Rafa's whipped top-spin.
Going for his shots now, the American began hitting a series of flat forehand winners in a manner reminiscent of Robin Soderling two years ago, in the only match Nadal has lost on the Paris clay. With Rafa faltering, Isner won the tie break 7-2, gave a cry of relief and came out fighting with renewed confidence in the third set.
That belief helped him stave off three break points, and with games going to serve and the fans firmly behind him, Isner made it through to another tie-break where, incredibly, Rafa was again the one to misfire, hitting unforced errors at the most crucial time. Another 7-2 score-line meant Isner was now two sets to one up and within sight of his greatest win.
The mark of a champion
Nadal was visibly upset with himself by this time, but a great champion does not let negativity settle. Surely he would manufacture more break points in the fourth, and surely he would convert them this time?
So it turned out. Isner gifted him the first with a double fault, another followed, and Nadal was back in it, a 6-2 winner of the fourth set and with the momentum on his side.
Serving first and with no tie-break to hang on for, Isner was under pressure. He held his first service game but cracked in his second. The defending champion was well into the groove now and three fabulous returns brought a trio of break points. He would only need one, Isner netting a volley to hand him a 2-1 lead.
Isner was expected to crumble now, but to his great credit he hung on despite clearly being exhausted, hoping against hope he would earn just his second break point of the match. A glimmer came at 5-4, 30-30, only to be extinguished after a magnificent rally culminating in a Nadal winner that Isner could chase no more. One more point and it was all over, the crowd rising as one to salute both victor and vanquished.
Hugely relieved, Nadal moves on with his dreams of making history still alive. Isner meanwhile will shift to grass where he will be a genuine threat, taking great heart from the day he nearly beat Nadal.