By Julien Pretot
PARIS (Reuters) - Just over a year ago, Paul-Henri Mathieu was in a plaster cast and could only manage 15 minutes of tennis. Sitting on a bench, that is.
On Thursday, he stayed out for five hours and 41 minutes to beat American John Isner 6-7 6-4 6-4 3-6 18-16 in the second round of the French Open. That too with a broken toe.
The Frenchman still cannot train for more than two hours and 30 minutes at a time after being sidelined for 15 months following major reconstructive leg surgery but on Thursday he beat a Roland Garros record of most games played.
"Sometimes I had doubts I would come back, I went through very tough moments," he told a news conference.
"And this was really hard, I mean, the path to the comeback. So for me today, even if I played for five hours, this was really easy."
In March 2011, Mathieu had his lower leg surgically broken so that doctors could realign his shinbones to correct a knee problem.
"One in three don't come back," his physiotherapist, Christophe Gaillard, told Reuters. "He is RoboCop."
Mathieu, however, said: "I am human, like everyone."
The Frenchman, who reached a career high ranking of 12 in 2008, resumed competitive tennis in January, losing in the first round of qualifications in a Challenger tournament in Germany.
Four months later, he was on Court Philippe Chatrier.
"I think I had my leg in a cast in April (2011), and I hit a quarter of an hour every three or four days," Mathieu explained.
"Playing like this on a big court like this is fantastic, especially after being injured.
"This is why I fought and tried to come back. It's to have those moments again. Even if I had lost, I would have said it was a wonderful day on a beautiful court with the crowd with me.
"So I was ready to lose even if I had to but these moments are superb."
Expectations were not that great coming into the match but the evening ended with Mathieu hearing the crowd chant his nickname 'Paulo! Paulo!".
"I never practised more than two hours or two hours and a half during the past two years," he said.
"So I didn't expect I would be able to do that. Before the match I didn't even ask myself the question. I thought I would have to play a three‑set match.
"After my first matches, I had no cramps, nothing, so I thought, well, it's okay, my body is getting use to it."
He would not, however, bow out without a fight. Possibly because he is Nicolas Mahut's best friend.
Two years ago, Mahut lost the longest professional tennis match at Wimbledon after an 11-hour-five-minute tussle against Isner.
"I had a chat with him (Mahut) just now and I told him 'I got revenge for you'," he said.
However, before the match, when he asked for pointers on how to play Isner, Mahut failed to offer him any insider knowledge.
"I asked Nicolas for some advice. I asked him where did he serve on break points, and he said: 'He serves everywhere'," he said with a smile.
The lack of any insight nor a broken toe could not stop Mathieu.
"Four days before this tournament I broke a toe against a bench," said Mathieu.
"After the match I have two bruises on two nails of my toes, because (they) hit the shoe for six hours. It's just a bruise. There are worse things than that."
(Additional reporting by Eric Salliot, editing by Pritha Sarkar)