Day 5 of the French Open ended with a marathon classic between John Isner and Paul Henri Mathieu. Mathieu won in over 5 hours and 40 minutes because he stay composed and made fewer mistakes. In contrast, Isner struggled with his forehand much of the match and eventually his penchant for unforced errors and ill-timed drop shots cost him.
Throughout the match both players were showing signs of frustration in their reactions and body language. Mathieu was frustrated by Isner's ability to serve away break points. Isner was just plain frustrated. He hit his racket on the ground several times and even shook his head in disgust after a winner.
Needless to say a marathon match is going to cause negative emotion and body language. In the end Mathieu handled the situation better. Despite showing frustration at times, Mathieu bounced back quickly the next point. He showed positive energy bouncing on his toes and moving forward when the opportunity presented it's self. Mathieu, despite injury problems that have kept him off the tour for some time, showed the belief that he could defeat the #10 seed. Maybe this belief was bolstered by being in his home country and having the support of the crowd, but also it was bolstered by Isner's negative energy. Isner did not exhibit the confidence and energy that he normally shows.
The problem for Isner was that his negativity in body language gives Mathieu belief and he hampers his own game. If you expect bad things to happen, bad things will happen. But, give Isner some credit. He fought hard and found a way to get it going again. While looking negative Isner many times found a way to fight through it. And, he continued to go for his shots. His forehand was huge in the match. Isner either hit a winner or unforced error, but he was able to control the points, especially on his serve.
Isner obviously could have won this match despite not playing his best, but his shot tolerance was very small. After about two balls Isner went for the winner. Not a bad a strategy for a big guy not comfortable on clay, but he was making tons of unforced errors. In this situation making a few more balls may have made the difference. It is hard to say; Mathieu was super consistent throughout the match and was wearing Isner down late in the fifth.
The real issue occurred late in the fifth set. Looking tired, Isner began shortening the points even more by going for the winner on the first ball. The last few games on Mathieu's service Isner seemed to barely go for several points. With darkness covering Philippe Chatrier, Isner could have slowed down, tried to conjure up all of his energy for each point, and attempted to hold on until darkness caused play to be suspended. Instead, Isner went faster, almost rushing between points. In several occasions Isner waited at the service line while Mathieu toweled off. Isner attempted to hit winners straight off the first ball and with fatigued legs made a string of unforced errors to seal his fate.
As darkness fell, Mathieu's composure despite losing six match points and Isner's fatigue and impatience were the difference. Congratulations to Mathieu for getting back to a level where he can compete with top ten players.