Nicolas Mahut still grinding on Wimbledon's outer courts

Nicolas Mahut still grinding on Wimbledon's outer courts
Nicolas Mahut lost in four sets Tuesday to Marcel Granollers. (Steve Bardens / Getty Images)

The day dawned bright and sunny at Wimbledon on Tuesday, and the trains were packed with tennis fans wanting to see Roger and Rafa, or Serena and Maria. Or all four.

Nobody was coming to see Nicolas Mahut, the French grinder.

Which is too bad, because Mahut may better represent the sounds, sights and true grit of this tennis cathedral the Brits affectionately refer to as SW 19 (the Wimbledon District postal code) than the stars on the show courts.

Mahut had his 15 minutes of fame here. Actually, he had three days of fame, over 11 hours and 5 minutes of actual court time, back in 2010. His was the match with John Isner that threatened to never end.

It did, with Isner winning the fifth and final set, 70-68, and media around the world momentarily paying attention to a tennis match not involving a player who shops for Lear jets.

Mahut is 32. Tuesday was his ninth Wimbledon appearance. Five of those times, including his marathon with Isner, he has left after his first match. His best effort here was his first, in 2006. He made it to the third round.

Tuesday, he was on Court 10, where Wimbledon hyperactivity is in full bloom. Court 10 is in a block of eight courts, in a valley below and behind the mammoth center court. These eight courts are mostly separated by green tarp fences at the ends and narrow walkways at the sides.

Seating consists of one row of benches along the side fences. Spectating consists of standing behind the always-packed benches and being constantly jostled by people moving between courts. If you are aggressive, you can work your way to the corner and lean on the garbage can. But then, you are in the line of big slice serves.


If you spot something that could help one of the players, you can just tell him, because you are about 10 feet away. "Hit more to his backhand, Nicolas."

There is constant noise. The chair umpire from Court 5 announces his score at the same time as the chair umpire on Court 9. One of the players on Court 11 gets into a heated discussion with the umpire that easily drifts to other courts: "It was right on the line, dammit."

There is no Hawkeye electronic line-caller out here, no speed gun on the serves. This may be Wimbledon, but it's no Indian Wells.

If you are Mahut, and his opponent, Marcel Granollers of Spain, you either wear ear buds or you hear everything. Total focus is impossible. If spectators caused this much chaos on the main courts Wimbledon would probably deport them.

This might be where the phrase "surround sound" originated. Playing tennis in the midst of all this is like trying to meditate at a cocktail party.

It was in the middle of this outback court chaos in 1991 that a young Pete Sampras, already U.S. Open champion but not yet established in the minds of Wimbledon hierarchy, was sent out to take on a crafty veteran named Derrick Rostagno, who is now a Los Angeles lawyer.

For some reason, there were fewer people milling around that Sampras match than around Mahut on Tuesday. In the deciding fourth set, Sampras — who would become one of the best volleyers of all time -- made a loose one, was broken and was finished after the second round.

Two years later, he won his first of seven Wimbledon titles. The days of playing Rostagno in the outback were long over. He was now Centre Court Pete, and he had earned it.

Mahut has never gotten to that, probably never will. His best ranking was No. 40 in 2008. He is No. 41 now. As a Frenchman, doing well at Roland Garros could have boosted his profile. But he lost there in the first round his first seven tries.

He also lost in the first round there this year. After that, a reporter started his press conference by saying, "Congratulations." Mahut responded, "Congratulations? I lost."

The reporter admitted that, like most tennis fans, when it comes to Mahut, he hadn't watched.

Tuesday, out on Court 10, with weather remaining so good here that people are wondering if they secretly domed the place, Mahut battled hard for some congratulations. He lost the first two sets to the 30th-seeded Granollers, but he was the usual never-say-die Mahut. After losing the first five points of the third set, and going down a break, he fought back to win a tiebreaker and force a fourth set.

But his next 15 minutes of fame at Wimbledon will have to wait. In what became a quality, hotly contested match, Granollers won the fourth set, 6-4.

Afterward, nobody brought Mahut in for an interview. Which is understandable.

Losing again might not be as painful as that first question.