Nicolas Mahut shines again on grass, but admits: ‘Winning a title doesn’t happen every week’

Nicolas Mahut wins the Ricoh Open for a third time, beating Gilles Muller 6-4, 6-4 in the rain-delayed final on Monday

It really could not happen to a nicer man, the success that has followed Nicolas Mahut through the last couple of years.

And this year is proving to be the best of his life after the 34-year-old Frenchman survived rain delays, three consecutive three-set battles, and a final that extended from Sunday to Monday to win his fifth and final match at ‘s Hertogenbosch, his third title at the Dutch tournament and just his fourth in his 16 years on the pro tour.

All four of those singles titles, indeed all six of Mahut’s career finals, have come on grass, and therein lies both Mahut’s gift and his curse. For the much admired-man who lives just a hop, skip and a jump from Roland Garros has never come close to any kind of success at his home Major—10 first-round losses in 15 appearances—while, come the all-too-short grass season, and his game has flowered.

For Mahut seems to be a man born out of his time, a man who plays the old-fashioned, one-handed, serve-and-volley tennis of decades before. It did not seem at all out of place when he came to Queen’s Club in 2007 and reached the final, nor that he should come through qualifying the following week at Wimbledon and make the second round.

Yet he seemed destined to be remembered for a match he lost at Wimbledon rather than any that he won. In 2010, he was ranked 148 and playing against the No19-ranked John Isner in a match that would go down in history as the longest in both games and time, an 11-hour marathon played over three days that is commemorated by a permanent plaque at the All England Club. Mahut lost, 68-70 in the fifth set.

The next year, he became a father, and would build on his considerable doubles talent to win three French titles with a French partner. But then in 2013, he won not just the doubles title in Newport but the singles, too, having won his very first singles title just weeks before on the Dutch grass. It was all the more remarkable because, until he stepped on the grass that year, he had not won a main-tour match while he nursed what was almost a career-ending knee injury.

He explained in Rotterdam earlier this year: “I worked really hard to come back after knee injury. I didn’t think it was the end, not the moment to stop. I could have only played doubles, but I said, OK, let’s try one more time.

“When I played the first time in Holland, I was ranked 250 and maybe that was the last opportunity for me to play singles. I had the chance to play the qualies, and I won the tournament. From the moment I won the tournament, I had the best results of my career, and tomorrow I will play my first semi-final of an ATP 500—so, well, it’s a great story age 34: I don’t complain!”

Following that 2013 surge of form, he went on to hit doubles gold with a new young French partner, Pierre-Hugues Herbert, winning the US Open doubles title last year. And in Rotterdam this February, as the oldest man in the draw and ranked 54, he would end up playing the semis in both singles and doubles on the same day.

He seemed almost unable to believe what he had achieved, pausing numerous times to smile, shrug his shoulders, and repeat: “It’s a great story. I play better and better… I don’t know what to say… I was injured six months, and was ranked 250. And I didn’t expect to win a Slam doubles and I won that last year. So maybe I don’t expect to win a 500 event, so why not? It’s great!”

He would lose in singles but go on to win the doubles, and that was just the start on the doubles court. He and Herbert went on to win the two biggest Masters of the year, Indian Wells and Miami, back to back—and then the Monte-Carlo title soon after—and he became the No1 doubles player in the world.

Yet there has been no stopping this late-flowering player with the old-school tennis. His singles tennis took a back seat through the clay season, but with the coming of grass came the grass pro to win his third singles trophy in Rosmalen.

Glutton for grass punishment that he is, Mahut heads straight to London where he is drawn against top seed and defending champion Andy Murray in his first match at the Aegon Championships. Unlikely, then, that the veteran Frenchman will make his second final at Queen’s—though he did beat Murray here in 2012, when the Briton was also defending champion. He is, it probably goes without saying, also in the doubles draw, where he and Herbert are top seeds and defending champions.

But Mahut’s ambitions go deeper into the year. He explained in Rotterdam: “Age 40 in singles would be tough, but in doubles I could play many years. But I don’t look too far. I’m just focused on this year: I have many goals. The Olympics is coming fast… and yes, it’s a dream, a goal, but maybe it will be the last chance for me to play.”

For the moment, he faces the kind of problems that follow winning a title, especially a final delayed by a day:
“Yesterday, I had to change my flights. I will now go to the airport for the earliest flight to London. I have to be ready to play Andy Murray tomorrow!”

Though he did allow himself a moment to enjoy his win because, as he put it: “I know winning a title doesn’t happen every week.”

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