Before meeting John Isner on Tuesday afternoon in Paris, Rafael Nadal had never lost a set in the opening two rounds of the French Open. He hadn't lost a set at the tournament since 2009. When the five-time tournament champion won the opening set of their first-round match, it figured that he'd cruise to yet another win at Roland Garros, his 39th in 40 career matches at the event.
And then he lost the second set and the third one after that.
Suddenly, Nadal was down two sets to one to the big-serving American and for a moment the threat of one of the most shocking first-round upsets in Grand Slam history was very real. Isner's first serve was hitting 145 mph and forcing Nadal to stand nearly 20 feet behind the baseline. The Spaniard looked confused and, for only the second time in his French Open career, beatable. In order to win, Rafa would have to go five sets, something he had never before done at Roland Garros.
But just as quickly as it started, it ended.
In a riveting display of tennis that showed why he's the greatest clay court player of all time, Nadal ran over Isner in the final two sets, booming crosscourt returns for winners to set up key breaks and holding his own serve with ease. The final score was 6-4, 6-7 (2), 6-7 (2), 6-2, 6-4.
What to make of Nadal's struggle? Was it the new Babolat balls that reportedly move faster on the slow red clay of Paris than the previous ones? Does he lack confidence on clay now that Novak Djokovic has beaten him twice in the past month? Has his aggressive, all-out style of play made him age so rapidly that he's now in a Federer-like decline despite being five years younger?
Sometimes there doesn't need to be a tidy, overreaching explanation when there are plenty of reasonable ones that don't require a shifting of the narrative. John Isner is 6-foot-9 and possesses one of the greatest serves in recent history. He was always going to be a tough matchup for Nadal and became even tougher when his serve was cracking and Nadal was uncertain of how to return it. The American is a top-20 talent and would have been seeded at Roland Garros if not for a recent swoon that moved him outside the top 32 in the rankings. He played a fantastic match for 3 1/2 sets and a good one for the rest. He had some luck on his side, particularly when Nadal was caught flat-footed on a set point in the third. Nadal lost a few points he usually doesn't lose. Add them all up and you get a five-set thriller.
There's no big picture here. It was a spectacular tennis match that featured sublime efforts by both Isner and Nadal. For the American, it's a good building point for the summer season in which he excels. For Nadal, it's another win at Roland Garros, one of seven he'll need to pick up en route to another potential title.