by Steve Flink
If someone had told me back in the middle of June that Mardy Fish would reach the final in three out of his next four tournaments, win two titles on different surfaces, and play some of the best clutch tennis of his career in the process, I would have said that was ridiculous. I have always believed Fish has not done himself full justice as a player, and thought that he might be lacking the mentality to compete favorably in the sport’s upper reaches. He frequently struck me as a man who did not completely believe in himself, as a player with extraordinary talent yet irredeemable vulnerabilities, as a competitor who could win on days when everything was going his way, but was prone to lose if he was a shade below the top of his game.
But after Fish’s remarkable run as of late, I am more encouraged about him and his chances than perhaps ever before. He got to the final on the grass at Queen’s Club before compatriot Sam Querrey cut him down. After a second round loss at Wimbledon to Florian Mayer, he bore down hard at Newport and came away with the Campbell’s Hall of Fame Tennis Championships title on the grass, making the most of a weak field in Newport the week after Wimbledon. But as impressive as that triumph surely was, Fish’s victory at the Atlanta Championships was even more eye opening. In the semifinals of that hard court event on the Olympus U.S. Open Series, Fish upended the U.S. No. 1 Andy Roddick 7-6 (5), 6-3 for only the second time in eleven career head-to-head meetings, ending a nine match losing streak against his old friend and rival. Refusing to be content after that significant win, the 28-year-old then defeated John Isner 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (4) in the championship match on a brutally hot late afternoon.
Fish must be commended for beating the two best players in his country back to back for a singles championship. To be sure, Roddick was ripe in some ways for the loss in his first tournament appearance since a distressing fourth round exit at Wimbledon, where he went down ignominiously to Yen-Hsun Lu in five sets. Roddick had struggled inordinately to reach the penultimate round in Atlanta, dropping sets to Rajeev Ram and Xavier Malisse, looking very much ill at ease from the backcourt in the latter contest. The state of Roddick’s game can often be measured by how he is performing in tie-breaks, and that was his downfall against Fish, as it was against Lu on the lawns of the All England Club when he dropped two of three that they played in that match. As for Isner, he was depleted in many ways by a hard week of work in his first tournament since Wimbledon. Isner bowed out at the All England Club in the second round after toppling Nicolas Mahut 70-68 in the fifth set of a showdown that took three days and eleven hours and five minutes to be completed.
Complicating matters for Isner in Atlanta was the fact that he had to play some tremendously difficult physical matches in the stifling American heat. In his opening round meeting with the dangerous left-hander Gilles Muller, Isner somehow escaped despite being match point down in both the second and third sets of a comeback victory. In the semifinals, he was pushed hard in a three set battle with Kevin Anderson. Perhaps still compromised by the ordeal he went through by playing the longest recorded match in tennis history at Wimbledon, Isner did well to make it to the final in Atlanta, and he, like Roddick, will inevitably improve markedly over the summer. He played well in Atlanta, but Isner was a beleaguered figure over much of the last hour of his grueling match with Fish in the final.
Nevertheless, Fish was not simply the right man in the right place at the right time. He was decidedly more than that. His forehand--- once a major liability in his game—is a vastly improved stroke that holds up much better under pressure. Not only did he give little away against Isner, but he made some terrific running forehands that not too long ago would have been out of his range. Clearly, Fish’s fitness and streamlined physique has had much to do with his success this summer. He once weighed over 200 pounds but now he is down to 170. His greatly enhanced mobility has made Fish a considerably more formidable player from the baseline, giving him more options, allowing him to use more of the court, presenting him with new and wide ranging possibilities.
Along with the immense progress he has made physically, Fish is also displaying a depth of mental toughness that surpasses anything we have seen from him previously. Taking that opening set tie-break from Roddick and closing out the match in straight sets from there was a case in point, but the way he rallied to defeat Isner was an even larger illustration of his progress. Both men had their chances in the opening set of the Atlanta final, but Isner had the upper hand after an uncertain beginning. At 0-1, Isner was twice down break point but he got out of that predicament with typical aggression. He sent one of his blistering inside-out forehands deep to Fish’s backhand to force an error to save the first break point, and released an excellent kick serve that his fellow American could not handle on the second one. Isner confidently held on for 1-1 with an ace.
At 2-2, Isner seemed poised to go up a break, reaching 0-40 on Fish’s serve, creating four break point opportunities for himself in that game. But Fish stepped up his play ably to hold on for 3-2, closing that game out with an ace up the T. At 3-3, however, Fish could not escape from another serious bind. At 30-40 in that crucial seventh game--- perhaps distracted by observing Isner looking to run around his backhand for a big forehand return--- Fish served a double fault by trying too hard to direct his serve down the T and dangerously close to the center service line. He missed it wide and lost his serve on that gamble. Serving for the set at 5-4, Isner demonstrated why he is now one of the sport’s finest servers. At 30-30, he came up with a huge second serve to the forehand that was too much for Fish, and then he aced his adversary down the T. Set to Isner, 6-4.
Yet Fish was not discouraged, and he was fresher and sharper than his opponent with the temperature soaring up there in the high nineties, and the heat reflecting intensely off the hard courts. In his first four service games of the second set, Fish conceded only four points while Isner needed to work an awful lot harder. At 3-4, Isner was down break point, but he rescued himself there with a nasty kick serve bounding up so high that Fish had no play. Isner gamely held for 4-4, but it was increasingly apparent that he was living on borrowed time. After Fish held at love for 5-4, Isner was broken at love, double faulting to go down 0-40, dropping the next point on an errant forehand volley off a low backhand pass.
It was one set all, and Fish was taking control of the match. At 1-2, 30-30 in the third set, Isner served a double fault, and then he badly missed a forehand drop shot. At 3-1, Fish was heading inexorably--- or so it seemed--- toward an uplifting victory. But Isner found a surprising surge of energy in the following game, breaking at love. He opened that game with two outright winners, and closed it with a forehand volley winner into an open court that he had set up with a devastatingly efficient inside-out forehand approach. Isner was back on serve and still very much in the hunt. He remained weary but not to the same degree. At 4-4, he got to break point as Fish made one of his few costly unforced errors off the forehand, guiding this one inside-out but long. Isner was one point away from serving for the match, but Fish stood his ground beautifully, placing his first serve strategically at 119 MPH down the T, eliciting an error on the return from his 6’9” opponent.
Fish calmly served his way to 5-4, and both men held all the way into a fitting conclusion: a final set tie-break. At 5-6, Isner had enjoyed one of his most convincing service games of the match, cracking three aces, holding at love, leading me to believe he would have the edge in the tie-break. But Fish kept his composure and played like a champion, while Isner looked exhausted and overanxious. On the first point of the critical sequence, Isner pressed on a backhand approach, and netted it. Isner then pulled a forehand wide, and missed a difficult running forehand. He was down a double mini-break. Fish surged to 4-0, but lost his next service point when Isner laced an excellent inside-out forehand approach that was unanswerable.
Isner took two points in a row on serve to close the gap to 4-3, but Fish was unshakable. Although he missed two first serves in a row, he dared Isner to make the second serve returns, and Isner was not up to the task. He missed a backhand return off a 77 MPH kicker, and then drove a forehand return long. Fish had advanced to 6-3, triple match point. Isner saved the first with an ace, but then missed a backhand passing shot long, and Fish was home free, victorious because he had played better tennis when it absolutely counted, triumphant on his own terms.
So where does Fish go from here? The hope here is that he will build on his two tournament triumphs over the summer season, and keep demanding more of himself. The best news of all for followers of American tennis is that four players should be accomplishing on a significant scale through the rest of the hard court season, and right on and through the U.S. Open. Sam Querrey will undoubtedly make his presence known in the weeks ahead. Roddick will use the valuable match play he had last week to take his game to another level in August. Isner will keep powering his way forward and inevitably will start winning some tournaments. He won Auckland at the start of 2010 but has lost three finals since: two to Querrey and this one to Fish. Isner could well have won all three of those finals, but it won’t be long before he learns how to close out these events.
As for Fish, he is no longer intimidated by anything or anyone. He has won two tournaments in a row, capturing ten consecutive matches, figuring out how to get through some tight corners in big matches to start salvaging wins from what once would have been losses. This is more than a resurgence for Mardy Fish, who reached a career high at No. 17 in the world back in 2004, and seems destined to climb back to that territory in the near future. This is a new beginning, and a chance for Fish to prove once and for all to the tennis world that his standards have changed, his aspirations are larger, and his game is going to take him to places he has never been before.
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