NEWPORT, R.I. —Nicolas Mahut walked onto the shadowless center court at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, where temperatures were into the 90s and still climbing, 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 told reporters. "I can't complain any more."
Mahut shrugged off temperatures reaching the mid-90s to beat Alejandro Falla 6-3, 1-6, 6-3 in the first round of the Hall of Fame Championships on Tuesday — Mahut's first singles match since his loss to John Isner at Wimbledon launched them both 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.
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Once again battling the sun — this time it was blazing, not setting — Mahut needed a more traditional 1 hour, 23 minutes to get past Falla.
Mahut regularly asked for a towel to wipe away the sweat as players, officials and fans endured record-setting heat, 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 dropshot Falla couldn't quite get to. 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.
"This time it's really different. People are coming up to me; they are really nice. I took all the energy from the people and that's why I won today."
Mahut said he thinks about Wimbledon "every minute." But he still struggles with the reaction he gets, because while it reminds him of his place in history he cannot forget that he lost the Isner match.
"Even when I sleep, I'm dreaming about the match," he said. "It's a crazy story."
In his dreams, does he win?
"Sometimes," he said with a smile.
"I took a picture on my phone," Mahut said. "I sent it to my friend and said, 'Look: I'm in the Hall of Fame museum."'