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Steve Flink: A Solo Act by Fish

9/21/2010 5:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

For close followers of American tennis, an awful lot was riding on the outcome of the World Group Play-Off contest between the U.S. and Colombia. Patrick McEnroe was concluding a ten year stint as captain, hoping to end his distinguished tenure in style with a victory on the clay in Bogota, knowing his team faced a considerable threat from a worthy opponent. The American squad wanted to make certain that they would remain in the World Group in 2011, and that could only happen with a triumph against Colombia. The players were determined to find a way to win on foreign soil under adverse circumstances, competing at an altitude of 8600 feet, reacquainting themselves with red clay after a long and demanding summer on hard courts.

To be sure, it was a tall task for the U.S., but they somehow managed to get the job done. In the end, however, this was not a typical team effort by any means. It was a remarkable display of discipline, willpower, conditioning, poise under pressure, and self conviction from one member of the American contingent. Mardy Fish celebrated his finest hour as a Davis Cup competitor—and one of the most admirable weekends of his career—by securing victories in a pair of five set singles matches and a four set doubles triumph. Almost all by himself, he lifted the Americans to victory. That Fish could perform so well when so much was expected of him was an immense tribute to his growth and maturity as a tennis player, and a testament to his character. By virtue of his exploits, Fish has placed his name down irrevocably in the record books as one of only nine Americans in the history of Davis Cup to win three live rubbers in a Davis Cup tie. Don Budge did it in 1937, and was followed by Tony Trabert (1953), Vic Seixas (1957), Alex Olmedo (1958), Dennis Ralston (1963), Stan Smith (1972), John McEnroe (1981, 1982, 1983) and Pete Sampras (1995).

That is extraordinarily good company, and Fish worked inordinately hard to put himself there. On opening day, he took on Alejandro Falla, the left-hander who served for the match before losing to Roger Federer in the first round of Wimbledon this year. Falla is not a multi-dimensional player, but his game is adaptable to any surface, and he had the luxury of playing in front of a vociferous home crowd.  Yet Fish seemed to have control of that match. After dropping the first set, he dominated the next two sets before falling behind in the fourth. When Falla served for the fourth set, he was down 0-40. Had Fish managed to break there, he could have won the match more comfortably.

But Falla held on, and forced a fifth set with his persistence. It was a time when a lesser player than Fish might have unraveled, but the 28-year-old American was steadfast in his convictions. He also had the advantage of serving first in the final set, and he exploited that to the hilt. With hold after solid hold, Fish kept himself in front. At 4-5, Falla served to save the match, and Fish was ready to pounce. He made it to match point, only to net a forehand when he had a good opening to hit a winner behind Falla. But Fish immediately gave himself a second match point opportunity, and did not squander it. Falla approached the net on a forehand down the line, but Fish was poised and confident. He drove a well disguised forehand passing shot safely cross court, and Falla could only turn and watch the ball drop inside the sideline for a clean winner. Fish was a 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 winner, and the U.S. was out in front 1-0 in the best of five match series.

It was apparent throughout the contest that the high altitude was not easy for Fish to handle. He conscientiously tried to keep hitting through the ball yet avoid pushing it, to flatten out his shots as much as possible but produce them with more topspin when necessary, to constantly find a balance between steering his ground strokes or driving them with more authority. Fish negotiated that task skillfully, but poor Sam Querrey never found his range. He was soundly beaten by Santiago Giraldo 6-2, 6-4, 7-5. Querrey was out of sorts for virtually the whole match, unable to make his forehand into the weapon it normally is, hard pressed to dictate points with any regularity, finding very little feel for the ball. Querrey played better in the latter stages, serving-and-volleying on his second delivery with some success, mixing up his game. It was all to no avail.

Out stepped Fish and John Isner to restore order for the U.S. in the doubles. They took on Robert Farah and Carlos Salamanca, and the Americans were first rate as a combination. They served magnificently in the first two sets and returned with much more consistency than their adversaries. Despite dropping the third set in a tie-break, they got an early break in the fourth set and never looked back, winning the match convincingly 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (2), 6-3. The U.S. was back ahead 2-1, but Fish realized he had a big task ahead. He needed to open the proceedings the following day with a win over Giraldo. The last thing the Americans needed was to be locked at 2-2 with no room to spare.  They needed Fish to give them one more win, and Fish was absolutely determined to provide it for them.

But Giraldo was rested and eager for his duel with Fish, who had already spent seven hours on the court the previous two days in singles and doubles. With Giraldo looking confident and settled from the baseline in the early stages, Fish found himself in a bind. His two-handed backhand has always been the hallmark of his game—along with his excellent first serve and a vastly improved second serve—but his timing was not there during the first set. A pair of backhand unforced errors cost Fish his serve in the fifth game of the opening set. Giraldo rolled to 5-3 and then broke Fish again in the ninth game as the American drove a two-hander long for 15-40 and then double faulted. Set to Colombia, 6-3.

As was the case when he dropped the first set against Falla, Fish simply went to work with more purpose. With Giraldo serving at 1-1, 30-40 in the second set, Fish walloped a two-handed return with good pace, followed that shot in, and put away an overhead off a relatively deep lob without hesitating. Fish had the break. He coasted to 4-2, then held easily for 5-3. With Giraldo serving to stay in the set, Fish raised his game once more. Giraldo was serving at 3-5, 15-30 when Fish angled a backhand passing shot acutely crosscourt for a dazzling winner. Shaken, Giraldo hit a backhand into the net on the next point. Set to the United States, 6-3. One set all.

Both men were thoroughly immersed in the battle by now, and were dealing ably with the altitude. In the opening game of the third set, Fish saved three break points and held on. At 1-1, he saved another break point with a beautifully executed backhand drop volley winner. Fish broke Giraldo for 4-2, held at love for 5-2, and seemed ready to close out the set without much difficulty. But Giraldo—a 22-year-old ranked No. 61 in the world—held at love to make it 5-3 for the American, and Fish then failed to serve out the set in the ninth game. A double fault put him down 15-40, and Giraldo took the next point to get back on serve. Giraldo was riding a wave of sentiment, boosted immeasurably by the crowd, driven by a growing sense of optimism. He held at love for 5-5, and had won not only three games in a row but also 12 of 13 points.

Fish had every reason to be shaken by the momentum shift, but he regained his equilibrium at a crucial moment. He connected with four out of five first serves in the following game, held at 15, and moved ahead 6-5. With Giraldo serving at 5-6, 15-30, the Colombian hit a deep crosscourt backhand that was not called out. Fish circled the mark. The umpire came down from his chair and affirmed that the ball had indeed been long. Fish was at 15-40, and Giraldo was unnerved. He double faulted. Set to Fish, 7-5. The United States led two sets to one.

At 2-2 in the fourth, Fish was seemingly in great shape, apparently on his way to a four set win. Not so fast. Giraldo was still doing some impressive things from the backcourt, making Fish play hard, prolonging the points with his consistency and anticipation. The Colombian broke for 3-2 in the fourth set, and swept 12 of 16 points on serve from there to make it an even contest. Set to Colombia. Two sets all.

So many fifth sets in Davis Cup swing on emotion. It was essential for Fish to dampen the enthusiasm of the Colombian fans in the fifth and final set, and he had the benefit of serving first. The American held easily until it was 2-2. At 40-30 in that fifth game, he double faulted, but Fish did not let that deter him. He played an excellent serve-and-volley point, swinging his first serve wide, forcing an errant forehand return from Giraldo. At game point, he used the heavy kick serve to set up a crosscourt winner off the backhand. Fish’s diversified game plan was working. He moved to 3-2, but Giraldo stood his ground. He won a deuce game to reach 3-3. Both men held easily twice to make it 5-5.

In the eleventh game, Fish made consecutive unforced errors to trail 0-30. He got back to 30-30 but then Giraldo prevailed in one of the best rallies of the entire contest. On the 36th stroke, he went for an inside-out forehand winner and pulled it off. At break point down, Fish tried to go behind his opponent with a backhand down the line, but he was off the mark. Giraldo had the break. The Colombian was ahead 6-5, and serving for the match. He advanced to 30-15, two points from an impressive triumph. Giraldo sent a backhand down the line into the net, and it was 30-30. Now Fish went on the attack, approaching behind an inside-out backhand return off a second serve. His shot clipped the net cord but landed reasonably deep in the court. Giraldo missed an arduous forehand down the line pass. At 30-40, Giraldo tentatively drove a forehand into the net. That unprovoked mistake allowed Fish to break back for 6-6.

Fish moved swiftly to 30-0 in the thirteenth game, but he lost three points in a row and went down break point. He saved it with a solid inside-out forehand that elicited an errant backhand from Giraldo. Giraldo advanced to break point a second time, but Fish wiped it away forcefully, taking a short return from his adversary and driving a two-hander cleanly crosscourt for an outright winner. He held on for 7-6. Giraldo was essentially spent. Serving to save the match, hoping to keep his nation alive, realizing he was on the edge of elimination, Giraldo made another forehand unforced error. Fish then came in on a deep backhand down the line to set up a well executed angled backhand drop volley winner crosscourt. It was 0-30. Fish was closing in on victory. Despite missing a forehand return on the next point, Fish stayed calm and resolute. Giraldo made consecutive unforced errors off the forehand, the shot he could no longer control in the altitude. Fish had succeeded, winning 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 4-6, 8-6. Thanks to his gigantic effort, the United States was victorious.

He had spent eleven hours competing across three days for his country. He had given the Americans a crucial win to keep them in the World Group for 2011. In tough and demanding conditions, he had not always played his best tennis, but he kept fighting on in the high altitude on the red clay, refusing to look for excuses, always searching for reasons to win, never looking like anything less than a top of the line professional. Over the next couple of seasons, Fish may well achieve prodigiously in tournaments. He has the capacity to make it to the top ten in the world for the first time in his career. He has made enormous progress since his knee surgery last September, losing 30 pounds, adding weight to his range of ambitions. But no matter what Mardy Fish accomplishes in the years ahead, he will look back on Bogota and know that it was a shining moment he might not replicate for the rest of his career.

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