Long memory of Wimbledon haunts Mahut
NEWPORT, R.I. — Nicolas Mahut walked onto the shadowless center court at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, where temperatures reached the mid-90s, and thought, as he frequently does, about Wimbledon.
“Nothing is worse than what I did in Wimbledon. Every match, I pray it will be easier,’’ he said. “I can’t complain any more.’’
Mahut shrugged off the heat to beat Alejandro Falla 6-3, 1-6, 6-3, in the first round of the Hall of Fame Championships yesterday — Mahut’s first singles match since his loss to John Isner at Wimbledon launched them to instant celebrity and landed the Frenchman’s gear next door in the Hall of Fame.
Their 11-hour-5-minute match was twice suspended because of darkness before Isner won 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68; the 138-game fifth set would itself have been the longest match in tennis history.
But there was no danger of another marathon in Newport: The tournament plays three sets, with a tiebreaker.
Once again battling the sun — this time it was blazing, not setting — Mahut needed a more traditional 1 hour and 23 minutes to get past Falla, a Colombian who came within three points of eliminating Roger Federer from Wimbledon in the first round. Also advancing were top-seeded Sam Querrey, defending champion Rajeev Ram, and fellow Americans Mardy Fish and Denis Kudla.
“I was kind of struggling out there,’’ said Querrey, who beat Jesse Levine, 6-3, 6-3. “Luckily it was only 59 minutes. [I] tried to go for second-serve aces, just get out of there.’’
Mahut regularly asked for a towel to wipe away the sweat, and the request became more frequent as the match went on and the points became more important; in the final game, he wiped off his brow and racket handle virtually every point.
At breaks, both players slapped icepacks on their necks and shoulders while ballboys held umbrellas to shield them from the sun.
“I had no choice. Either you play or you stay in the locker room,’’ Mahut said. “From what I did in Wimbledon, I couldn’t come out there and say, ‘I can’t do it. It’s too hot.’ Now everything’s different.’’
Mahut broke Falla’s serve in the sixth game to take the first set, then gave back the second set by losing his first service. Still, the Frenchman must have been encouraged when the chair umpire announced, just 51 minutes in, “Final set.’’
He fell behind love-40 in the first game of the third set before winning with a drop shot Falla couldn’t quite get. Falla missed a passing shot wide, and then after an overpowering serve Falla hit his next return into the net.
Mahut’s drop shot gave him the game, and he broke Falla’s serve to take a 4-2 lead in the decisive set when the Colombian missed on three of his first four serves to fall behind love-30. Mahut took the game, and the match soon after, giving a pump of both fists before applauding and waving to the crowd that he credited for his victory.
“Every two minutes, people come to me to congratulate me. It is an unbelievable feeling,’’ said Mahut, who was making his fifth appearance in Newport, reaching the finals in 2007.