Wimbledon 2015: Marathon defeat was the making of Nicolas Mahut

CNN  — 

After losing the longest match of all time at tennis’ most prestigious tournament, a dazed Nicolas Mahut wanted to escape to the locker room as quick as he could.

But he had to wait.

A ceremony to mark his 11-hour, five-minute affair at Wimbledon with John Isner ensued, and the Frenchman had to pose in front of the scoreboard on Court 18 that told much but not all the story.

The photo might go down as one of the most memorable in tennis history, like the titanic clash itself – which lasted about 5½ marathons run at world-record pace.

There was Mahut, between Isner and ever-cheerful chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani. Isner and Lahyani smiled broadly, but Mahut’s annoyed expression suggested he’d rather have been caught in a British rainstorm without an umbrella.

It’s not difficult to understand why: The epic tussle ended up captivating the world as it stretched to three days thanks to two stoppages for darkness – and Mahut had nothing to show for it.

When shown the picture at this month’s Aegon Championships at London’s Queen’s Club, Mahut laughed.

“I don’t have a smile on my face, eh?” the 33-year-old said. “I’ll tell you the truth. I don’t remember that moment. I saw it on video and I saw pictures, but I don’t have memories of it. I don’t remember anything after match point.”

Yet five years after the 6-4 3-6 6-7 (7-9) 7-6 (7-3) 70-68 defeat at the All England Club, Mahut is no loser – and Isner couldn’t be happier for him.

Instead of the defeat defining his career, and Mahut completing his days on the tour as an unlucky journeyman – besides the loss to Isner, he had failed to convert a match point in the 2007 final at Queen’s with Andy Roddick stranded at the net – it served to kickstart his game.

“Even if I lost the match, I learned a lot about myself as a player and person,” Mahut says. “Afterward I said, ‘I can play everywhere in every condition,’ and this means a lot to a tennis player.

“After a long time – not right after the match – I was really proud of myself. I knew I had the ability to fight, but I didn’t prove it before. This was a big difference, between thinking it and being able to do it.”

Mahut was 28 at the time, an age when many pros hit their prime. But he was ranked 148th and needed to go through qualifying simply to make Wimbledon’s main draw.

Injuries played their part in his slide down the rankings – he reached No. 40 in 2008 – and Mahut admits that a lack of belief, his coaching setup and not having the correct tactics also let him down.

Now Mahut owns three career titles – all of them coming after 2010 – and this year made his debut for France’s Davis Cup team, fulfilling a lifelong ambition. In tennis-mad France, playing for the national side could almost be considered sacred.

If the match against Isner was the start of a turnaround for Mahut, the 2013 French Open doubles final completed his metamorphosis.

He lost that one, too, to add to his woes. Top-ranked U.S. twins Bob and Mike Bryan beat Mahut and Michael Llodra in a third-set tiebreak to prevent their opponents from becoming the first French pair to win the title in 30 years – the honor of ending that long wait would fall to Julien Benneteau and Edouard Roger-Vasselin in 2014.

Mahut wept in his chair afterward, although when the immediate devastation subsided he suspected good things were on the way.

“I thought, ‘OK, one more time it’s a loss, one more time I didn’t win,” he recalls. “It’s, ‘I’m a very good loser.’ It’s typically French, losing but playing good, losing but in a dramatic way.

“I think I was in this category, but at the same time, I was saying, ‘OK, I’m really close to something great.’ I knew I could do some big things.”

Two weeks later, Mahut claimed his maiden singles title by defeating Stan Wawrinka – now a two-time grand slam winner – in a Dutch tournament as a qualifier ranked 240th. A second grass-court title followed in the U.S. and his ranking, having suffered due to a left knee injury, climbed inside the top 80.

In May 2014, Mahut achieved a career-high 37th in the world. This year, he and Pierre-Hughes Herbert made the Australian Open doubles final, and two weeks ago he won his second Den Bosch title before claiming the ninth doubles success of his career at Queen’s Club, taking his total prize money as a pro to $4.8 million.

After thinking his chances of representing his country were over, Mahut even got a call from French captain Arnaud Clement to play in the Davis Cup against Germany in the first round in March.

He shone, combining with Benneteau to beat Benjamin Becker and Andre Begemann in straight sets and book Les Bleus’ spot in the quarterfinals.

“Last year I was ready for it and I wasn’t picked,” says Mahut, ranked 66th ahead of his 10th singles campaign at Wimbledon, where he has never got past round three. “So I told my wife, ‘That’s it, I’ll never be part of the team. It’s too difficult. Maybe the captain doesn’t believe in me.’

‘From that moment last year, I didn’t think about the Davis Cup anymore, I just focused on my game. Then we made the final at the Australian Open, which was unexpected. The captain called and said, ‘I really think it’s your time to join the team’ and ‘I truly believe in you.’

“That was maybe the greatest moment of my career.”

Thanks to their match, Isner and Mahut forged a tight bond that remains to this day. Mahut said he met Isner’s family in 2010 and still mingles with them, last catching up last year at a tournament in Winston-Salem in August.

“Nicolas is such an incredible guy – a class act,” Isner told CNN at Queen’s Club, where he lost in the quarterfinals.

“People know me for playing in that match more so than winning the match, so I like to think the same goes for him. I may have come out on top on the scoreboard but there was no loser that day – or for the three days,” added the American, with a laugh.

“This match will live on forever. In the year 2200, people will still be talking about it.”

Back to the present, and Isner was delighted Mahut received a wildcard to play at Wimbledon – he plays 122nd-ranked Croatian main-draw debutant Filip Krajinovic in the first round on Tuesday.

“He certainly deserves a Wimbledon wildcard,” said 17th-ranked Isner, who is in the other half of the draw and won his opening match against Japan’s Go Soeda on Monday. “I think both of us should get a Wimbledon wildcard for life if we need it.”

When told Isner’s comments, Mahut replied: “I feel really honored to be part of Wimbledon history with John. I wish I will end my career by playing doubles with John at Wimbledon.”

It would be fitting, given what they accomplished five years ago. But Mahut has made sure that he won’t only be remembered for those three days on Court 18.

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