Isner, Mahut fall short of marathon

WIMBLEDON, England -- By the time they reached the third set Tuesday evening, the setting sun was already hovering above the western rim of Court No. 3.

The golden light lingered on the players when they were serving on the southern baseline, casting them in bronze for all time. This was appropriate, for John Isner and Nicolas Mahut are already celebrated here at the All England Club for a little match they played a year ago.

Their side-by-side bronze statues can be found in the reception area of the broadcast center. The likenesses are quite striking, except for the fact that the Mahut (diving for a backhand volley he will never quite reach) figure looks larger than the 6-foot-9 Isner.

Rarely does the sequel exceed the original, and on Tuesday it was no different. How could it possibly?

The British oddsmakers were taking bets at 500,000 to 1 that last year's 11-hour, 5-minute, 183-game match would not be surpassed. They were, of course, right. It's tough to beat 70-68 in the fifth set.

This time, when Mahut sprayed a too-forceful forehand long, it ended in three reasonably concise sets -- 7-6 (4), 6-2, 7-6 (6) -- and consumed only 2 hours, 3 minutes. Although last year's three-day affair ended with several thousand spectators jammed around Court 18, when this one was over there were more empty green seats than full ones.

When the on-court interviewer, clever fellow, called it a quick and easy match, Isner begged to differ.

"It wasn't easy," he said, shaking his head. "But obviously it was considerably quicker than the last time we played."

When he was down a break to Mahut in the last set, Isner told himself he had to find a way win in three.

"If I lose the third set, we're probably not going to finish," Isner said. "Then you're looking at a second day and maybe into a third day. I was really glad to win it, because we were running out of daylight."

The funny thing? Last year's match went an eternity because both players served so well -- and returned so bloody poorly. This time, Isner returned fairly well. He finished with 41 winners, balanced against only 10 unforced errors.

"I'm disappointed with the result, and the manner," said Mahut. "And I'm disappointed with my season on grass in general. Since I arrived at Queen's, I couldn't work as I wanted and wished. It's very frustrating. "

Last year they combined for a record 216 aces (113 by Isner). This year the total was a paltry 16 (eight apiece), which pretty much summed up the match.

There was a buzz around the grounds when Isner's name came out of the hat and was placed on the line next to Mahut's. Later, Isner sent him a simple text: a frowning not-so-smiley face.

They made a $5 bet on whether the All England Club would send Mohamed Lahyani back to the chair as umpire. Mahut said no -- it was the authoritative Lars Graff -- and he escaped with at least a little cash.

Isner, who jogged to the net, said Mahut seemed to be bothered by a knee injury. The two players shared a warm embrace, but showed very little emotion otherwise. There was a flat, listless vibe as they packed up their bags.

"This match was really important for me, I wanted to take revenge," Mahut said. "The conditions were different from last year, more wind, colder. Physically, I couldn't have the intensity that I wanted."

Isner was asked if he would have enjoyed playing on Court 18, where the two players had made history.

"I don't know if those were good memories," Isner said, laughing but being serious. "They were long memories. I don't think they wanted to tarnish the reputation of Court 18. Chances were this match wasn't going to live up to last year's match."

It didn't, and now both players will try to move on. Unlike last year, Isner said he will be fresh for his second-round match against Nicolas Almagro, a contest he should win.

"It's tough, obviously," Isner said later. "Someone was going to have to lose that match last year. You know, unfortunately it was him. But, really, I mean, he has nothing to hang his head about at all. He fought just as hard today.

"I definitely didn't want to play him first round because one of us was going to go home a loser. And I think both of us could do well or can do well at this event.

"Really, it stinks for him that he's out now."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.