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Steve Flink: Tale of Two Triumphs

3/17/2008 6:50:00 PM

by Steve Flink

After all was said and done in Indian Wells at the Pacific Life Open, two men left the event with an elevated status in the game, with an opportunity to build on their successes, with a chance to move toward loftier goals in the months ahead. Novak Djokovic, the 20-year-old Serbian who secured his first major championship in January at the Australian Open, methodically carved out a victory on the hard courts in California, claiming his second title of the season. The view here is that he has a better than 50-50 chance to finish 2008 at the No. 1 ranked player in the world. Mardy Fish, a 26-year-old American who was ranked a career high No. 17 in the world in the spring of 2004, enjoyed perhaps his best week ever as a tennis player, toppling three players ranked among the elite top ten in the world. Fish, having entered Indian Wells stationed at No. 98 in the world, made it to the final and ascended to No. 40 in the process. My guess is that he may well be headed for the top ten in the world and will, at the very least, take his place back in the top 20 by the end of 2008.

Both players had excellent weeks and triumphed in different ways over the course of the tournament. Djokovic had not played all that well since his big win "Down Under" in Melbourne, but at Indian Wells he swept into the final without the loss of a set and then held back Fish 6-2, 5-7, 6-3 to garner his first Masters Series championship of 2008. He had reached the final at Indian Wells a year ago, losing the title match to Rafael Nadal. This time around, he crushed Nadal 6-3, 6-2 in the semifinals before overcoming a determined Fish in the championship match. Now he will go to Miami and defend his Masters Series title on the hard courts there. He could well get the job done again in Florida, but now that he has added Indian Wells to his collection, Djokovic has removed a layer of pressure from his shoulders and should be both confident and uninhibited as he goes about his next piece of business.

Djokovic rose to the occasion remarkably well against Nadal, who had played his best back-to-back matches of the season in ousting Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and James Blake on his way to the penultimate round. Tsonga, of course, had obliterated Nadal in a straight set masterpiece in Australia to reach his first major final. He nearly toppled Nadal again in California, building a 5-2 final set lead in a round of 16 clash. Nadal did not want to lose to such a dangerous and capable adversary again, and he struck back boldly to win five games in a row to record an uplifting victory. The next night, Nadal defeated Blake for the first time in four career head-to-head meetings, coming through 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 in a high quality collision.

So Djokovic was well aware that Nadal was starting to believe in himself again after not winning a tournament since Stuttgart last summer. Djokovic, who stood at 2-6 lifetime against Nadal after losing five of their 7 appointments in 2007, was primed for this showdown. He lost his serve only once, falling behind a break at 2-1 in the opening set. The Serbian, controlling matters persuasively from the baseline against an unwavering yet ineffectual Nadal, took five of the last six games to seal the opening set. In the second set, Djokovic was serving at 1-2, 40-0, but then dropped four points in a row. Nadal thus had a break point for 3-1. Had he converted, the tone of the contest might have changed dramatically, but the Spaniard miss-hit a backhand crosscourt wide. Djokovic, thoroughly disciplined and tenacious, ever opportunistic and unbending, never looked back. He collected five games in a row to finish off a dispirited Nadal.

In the championship match against Fish, Djokovic returned serve magnificently, breaking Fish four times on his way to a 6-2, 4-2 lead. A decisive victory seemed certain for Djokovic. He was picking apart the American skillfully from the baseline, seizing the initiative whenever possible and defending stupendously at other junctures. But a rash of unforced errors--- the product of his nerves--- cost Djokovic his serve in the seventh game. Fish was back on serve at 4-4.Djokovic settled down again. Fish was serving at 4-5, 0-30, two points from extinction. And yet, Fish, blazing on all fronts, improbably went on an exhilarating run, taking 15 of the next 17 points to win the second set and then reach 0-40 on Djokovic's serve in the opening game of the final set.

That was the moment of consequence. Had Djokovic gone down a break at that stage, he might have unraveled, and Fish would probably have been fueled on to a win by a passionate American crowd cheering his every move. Both men fully recognized what was at stake. And right then and there, as if by design, Djokovic defined himself and brought Fish rudely back to reality. Djokovic delivered three consecutive aces to reach deuce, and then threw in another unanswerable serve. He held on gamely for 1-0, broke a deflated Fish in the following game, and held on the rest of the way.

Djokovic unmistakably had been overcome by apprehension in the second set when victory was within his grasp. But he had recovered his composure and reestablished his superiority. Others in his position might have been entirely content with getting the win. Not so Djokovic. In his post-match interview with Fox Sports Net, the first thing Djokovic said was, "I wasn't very satisfied with my performance."

I liked that. He knew he had wandered unnecessarily into dangerous terrain, and realized he could have cost himself the match. His candor and professionalism were admirable. He was reminding us all why he is a champion. He was demanding everything he had of himself, refusing to be content just because he had recorded another important tournament victory.

As for Fish, he assembled his game with growing assurance over the course of the week at Indian Wells. In the third round, he removed No. 4 seeds Nikolay Davydenko in straight sets. He next accounted for No. 24 seed Lleyton Hewitt in a final set tie-break. In the quarterfinals, Fish stopped No. 7 seed David Nalbandian in another showdown that went to a tie-break in the third set. Nalbandian served for the match at 6-5 in the final set but Fish broke back at a propitious moment. The two combatants were locked at 4-4 in the ensuing tie-break. Fish simply would not let go, winning three points in a row to wrap up the win.

That set the stage for a startling turn of events. Fish took apart Federer 6-3, 6-2 without losing his serve. He broke Federer three times, and never allowed Federer to breathe easily at any juncture of the match. Fish entered "the zone" and never left it, setting the tempo from beginning to end. He took the ball early, rushed Federer into errors with timely chip and charge tactics, and was breathtakingly good off the ground, hitting winners almost at will off both sides. Federer, however, was a shell of his normal self and he did not serve with the severity or the accuracy he needed on a day when his back was always to the wall. The Swiss was caught off guard, losing to his American adversary for the first time in six career clashes. Fish was on target with only 34% of his first serves, but Federer was surprisingly throttled by Fish's second serve time and again.

Federer could easily have lost that match 6-1, 6-1. At 0-3 in the opening set, he saved break points. At 1-5 in the second set, he held on from 15-40. It was as listless a performance as he has given in a very long time. Federer had looked reasonably sharp in posting three straight set victories on his way to the quarterfinals, but then Tommy Haas defaulted against the world No. 1 with a sinus infection. That might have thrown Federer off his game to some degree. But the fact remains that he was going to be hard pressed to beat Fish under any circumstances that afternoon because the American was playing a dazzling brand of tennis.

So what should we make of Fish? How significant was his showing in the desert? My feeling is that it was a serious turning point in his career. He has always had a great serve, smoothly delivered, beautifully crafted. His two-handed backhand is right up there among the best in his profession. His technique on the volley is excellent off both sides.

But now Fish has added a crucial dimension to his game. His forehand--- always a liability on the past-has become a first rate stroke. It held up superbly all week in California. He seemed to make some progress off that side early last year, and the forehand was one of the keys to his quarterfinal appearance at the 2007 Australian Open. But at Indian Wells he took his forehand to another level. He continued to go for big shots off that side without excessive topspin, and missed very little while hitting lines and forcing errors with astonishing regularity. In the final, Djokovic made him cover too much court and Fish was missing too many running forehands. Moreover, when Djokovic took some of Fish's best punches and sent the ball back low and deep down the middle, Fish was prone to missing off that forehand side.

Be that as it may, that forehand can no longer be easily exploited, and he has turned it into an impressive weapon. He hit some blockbuster forehand down the line winners against Djokovic, and that, coupled with his ability to drive the two-hander with uncanny pace and precision in either direction, makes him a dangerous player to confront on hard courts, grass courts, and indoors. As long as he stays healthy, Fish will do some spectacular things this season and over the next few years. He has the capacity to join Andy Roddick and James Blake in the upper reaches of the game by the summer, and the feeling grows that the three Americans will all finish 2008 among the top ten in the world. Fish should make that his primary goal, and it is a target well within his reach.

Roddick is the best competitor in American tennis. Blake is the quickest and most explosive player in the country. But Fish is the most complete player in the U.S. It will be up to him to fully realize his talent in the months and years ahead, to display the same level of maturity and match playing acumen that he advertised so well in California, to prove that he has the mental toughness and the physical durability to succeed not only in the short but over the long run. 

Fish must be watched carefully across 2008 as he looks to make his presence known on the biggest stages. And Djokovic-a player who can deliver on any surface, a competitor who will settle for nothing less than his very best, a young man with deep convictions--- is right where he wants to be. He will need to keep working inordinately hard if he wants to prevent Federer from garnering the No. 1 world ranking for a fifth consecutive year in 2008, but the view here is that a resolute Djokovic will indeed close 2008 at the top of his profession.

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