WIMBLEDON, England — For all their discernible differences, Nicolas Mahut and John Isner are like two sides of the same piece of paper. When they met again Tuesday in the first round of Wimbledon, they might as well have been clutching pens in their hands instead of rackets.
Mahut, the plucky Frenchman who lost to Isner in their history-making opener last year, wrote a book on the match, then returned to the All England Club keen on changing the ending. Isner, an affable American eager to be known as more than tennis’s marathon man, came back intent on writing a new chapter to his career.
They are fierce competitors but will be remembered forevermore as collaborators on one of the most memorable stories in Wimbledon history. In 2010, Isner needed more than 11 hours to separate himself from Mahut, who succumbed, 70-68, in the fifth set.
By comparison, Isner’s 7-6 (4), 6-2, 7-6 (6) victory in the sequel, which ran 2 hours 3 minutes, was prosaic. In fading daylight, he secured a berth in the second round when Mahut hit an errant forehand on the second match point.
“I’m just really thrilled to have won that third set,” Isner said, “because if I lose that third set, then chances are we don’t finish. You know, our match goes to a second day.”
The six-time champion Roger Federer also advanced, as did the three-time runner-up Andy Roddick. Marcos Baghdatis, the No. 32 seed, barely thwarted the upset bid of James Blake, whose ranking has fallen outside the top 100, winning, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 4-6, 6-4. On the women’s side, the winners included the top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki and the 2004 champion Maria Sharapova.
First-round matches are fret-filled exercises, but for Isner, who is 6 feet 9 inches with the wingspan of an albatross, the pressure was intense. His career did not take flight last year after his iconic victory. Less than 24 hours after dispatching Mahut, he lost to Thiemo de Bakker in straight sets. The rest of the summer was a struggle.
In his return, he kept his focus on the big picture, even as pundits spent four days talking about his first-round date with Mahut.
“The goal is the second week,” Isner said.
Last year’s match was played in the cozy confines of Court 18, which now bears a plaque on an outside wall that commemorates the marathon match. The sequel took place on Court 3, one of the All England Club’s show — but by no means showy — courts, with a capacity of 1,980. There were several dozen empty seats when Isner and Mahut walked out for their warm-ups after 6 p.m.
After winning the first set, Isner swung with much more freedom on his serve and forehand. In the second and third sets, he produced 26 winners against 7 unforced errors and five of his eight aces.
“After the first set, I felt actually really comfortable out there,” said Isner, who finished with 41 winners and 10 unforced errors. “I came out a little tight. Won that first-set tiebreaker. That was huge. That took a lot of pressure off me. Felt like I played pretty well from that point on.”
If Isner was uncomfortable last summer being asked to relive his match against Mahut over and over, it was because he knew he had set himself up for a huge encore.
“Nothing’s going to live up to that match,” Isner said.
Asked what he has to achieve to be known for something other than outlasting Mahut, Isner replied, “In all honesty, I think that’s going to have to be something really big.” He added, “I’d have to make a huge, huge mark in the course of a Grand Slam some time in my career.”
In many ways Mahut’s loss last year was a breakthrough. Serving second, Mahut served to stay in the match for 64 consecutive service games, showing a tenacity and focus that has not always been evident in his career.
Philippe Bouin, the former lead tennis writer for L’Équipe who collaborated with Mahut on his book, “The Match of My Life,” wrote in an e-mail, “ I had told him that what interested me really was to try to find why a ‘normal French player’ like him, meaning talented, but mentally fragile, had been able for once to behave like a champion.”
Mahut could find no such consolation after Tuesday’s match, which was played in adverse conditions. He is one of the few players who does not wear a visor or cap during his matches, and his well-gelled hair made a handy wind gauge as strands waggled in gusts that made serving tricky.
Isner was the better returner, earning five break points and converting three. Mahut, who wore black adhesive strips around his left knee, was not moving as well as he normally does. He managed only two break points, one of which he converted. After finishing with 32 winners and 16 unforced errors, Mahut said: “Was difficult to play this match. We talk about last year during three days. That was not easy. But he handled it much better than I did.”
It was nearly 8:30 when the last point was played Tuesday. The players met at the net, and Isner said Mahut told him, “I want to see you in the second week of the tournament.”
That’s Isner’s mission: to write the perfect ending for both of them.