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Steve Flink: American Pride

7/25/2011 7:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

The news for avid followers of American tennis was all good last week. As the 2011 Olympus U.S. Open Series got underway with the kickoff event at the Atlanta Tennis Championships, Mardy Fish and John Isner staged a revival of their 2010 final on the same stage, with Fish claiming the title once more after a gallant comeback. Meanwhile, a perspicacious 19-year-old named Ryan Harrison celebrated his best week ever on the ATP World Tour, reaching his first ever big league semifinal with a string of hard fought victories before Fish took him apart with clinical efficiency.

Fish, Isner and Harrison all took away something substantial from Atlanta as they headed on into the heart of summer. Fish secured his first tournament win of 2011, and it was also his first championship run as the No. 1 player in his nation; in some ways, this was a validation of his status as the best player in the United States. Isner had won the Campbell’s Hall of Fame Championships at Newport a few weeks earlier, and his exploits in Atlanta were an impressive follow up. Harrison continued his steady ascent toward the upper regions of the game, coming from a set down to oust the 31-year-old Belgian Xavier Malisse, then saving a match point in a hard fought quarterfinal win over Rajeev Ram. Harrison carries himself like a seasoned veteran, displaying a deep inner confidence nearly every step of the way. Now he is up to No. 94 in the world, and the feeling grows that he will reach the top 50 over the next several months.

And yet, while the week was a triumph in different ways for the formidable trio of Fish, Isner and Harrison, the fact remains that Fish was the most celebratory performer. He reinforced for all of us just why he has come so far over the past year, and reaffirmed as well that he resides among the top ten in the world with good reason. The 29-year-old has not only improved his forehand by leaps and bounds, but he now is right up there among the best conditioned athletes in his field, and in turn Fish has  made immense strides continually as a competitor, winning more than his share of matches even when he is not in peak form. Fish’s conditioning and his admirable mental toughness were his primary virtues in the final against Isner, enabling him to make a stirring recovery and win a match he seemed destined for a long while to lose.

Fish had an important chance to seize control of the contest in the opening game, but he did not seize his chance. Isner was unsettled, double faulting into the net to fall behind 15-40. At double break point down, Isner missed his first serve. Fish got his second serve return in play, and Isner then drove a two-hander deep crosscourt, right into the strength of Fish, who has one of the finest two-handed backhands in the world. But Fish cautiously drove his backhand into the net, guiding that shot rather than driving through it with customary polish. Isner then aced Fish with a vicious kick serve out wide to the backhand in the Ad court, and soon the 6’9”, 26-year-old held on.

That game was absolutely crucial. Had Fish broken, he might well have taken that set, and the look and feel of the match could have been very different. Instead, the towering Isner was off and running. With Fish serving at 1-2, Isner made his move. Fish served an ace at 15-40, but then steered an inside out forehand wide off a down the middle return from Isner. Isner was right where he wanted to be, up 3-1, brimming with confidence. Isner held at 15 for 4-1, closing out that game with a 143 MPH ace down the T in the deuce court. He then served his way commandingly through that set. At 5-3, 30-30, Isner aced Fish wide to the forehand, and then sent out a huge kicker to the backhand on the following point as Fish barely made contact with the return. Set to Isner, 6-3.

But soon it was apparent that that the stifling heat reflecting off the hard court in Atlanta was getting to Isner in a serious way. He broke Fish in the opening game of the second set with another effective return deep down the middle, provoking an errant forehand from Fish, who pulled his shot wide. Isner had the quick service break he wanted, but at 15-40 in the next game he double faulted. Fish was back in business. At 1-1, the defending champion held at love as Isner seemed spent, hardly moving in the latter stages of that game, holding his stomach as if he felt he might be getting sick. But the big man managed to keep his composure. He intelligently conserved his energy, and put everything he had left into holding serve to stay in that set.

Fish was breezing through on serve, losing only one point in his last five service games of that second set. But Isner was unbreakable himself after that early lapse. It was strikingly apparent that Isner’s strategy was to preserve his strength and then put all of his resources into the confined space of a tie-break.  That way of thinking seemed to be working exceedingly well as the two players fought on inevitably to 6-6. Fish was clearly feeling the pressure in the early stages of that tie-break, knowing full well that Isner had been priming himself for this moment. On the first point of the tie-break, Fish was serving, and made a forehand unforced error. Buoyed by having the immediate mini-break, Isner cracked a service winner to the backhand, then followed with an enormous second serve kicker that was unstoppable.

Isner was at 3-0, and soon he moved to 5-1. Serving the crucial seventh point, Isner was overanxious. Fish sent a flat backhand down the line, and Isner answered by going for a scorching forehand down the line. His shot went well over the baseline. Fish swiftly took both of his service points to close the gap to 5-4. Isner advanced to 6-4 with a penetrating forehand down the line, and now was up double match point. On the first one, Fish drove a two-hander solidly crosscourt, and inexplicably Isner went for an ultra-aggressive backhand down the line. His shot travelled long. Improbably, Fish was now serving at 5-6, but still down match point. His first serve down the T in the Ad court was impeccably placed, and Isner had no play on the return. At 6-6, Fish made an outstanding backhand drop volley winner crosscourt off a low backhand pass from Isner. Fish was suddenly at set point himself, with Isner serving at 6-7. Isner sent a big first serve down the T, but Fish read that delivery beautifully, blocking back his forehand return, giving Isner a chance to miss. Isner did just that, sending an inside-out forehand wide.

With supreme concentration, extraordinary determination, and immense poise under pressure, Fish had virtually stolen the second set from Isner. He had erased two match points against him, playing percentage tennis at its best, refusing to give in. Once the battle went to a third set, there was little doubt about the outcome. In the opening game of that final set, Isner double faulted into the net to trail 15-40, saved one break point, but then lost his serve when he tried a bailout backhand drop shot down the line that went into the net. Fish held at love with an ace for 2-0, and held easily at 15 to make it 3-1.

The last opportunity for Isner came when Fish served in the sixth game of the final set. Isner seemed to find a final surge of energy, and Fish let his guard down slightly. At 15-15, Fish double faulted, and then Isner surprised him with an acutely angled inside-out forehand return that set up a two-handed backhand winner up the line. Just like that, Fish was down 15-40, and Isner was poised to break back for 3-3. Not so fast. Isner patiently rallied with Fish, but lost control of a forehand crosscourt on the 18th stroke of an absorbing exchange, driving the ball long. Fish was back to 30-40, and he reached deuce with an ace out wide that clipped both lines in the corner of the service box. Fish soon held for 4-2, and both men knew the match was essentially over. In the seventh game, Isner double faulted at 30-15, and then served another double fault at 30-40. Fish had the insurance break, holding at love to complete a 3-6, 7-6 (6), 6-2 triumph.

In the ultimate analysis, Fish persevered because he was much fitter and faster toward the end. He also returned serve remarkably well from the second set tie-break on. He seemed always seemed to anticipate the direction of Isner’s delivery, blocking back his first serve returns adeptly. On his second serve returns, he stepped inside the baseline whenever possible and gave himself openings for aggressive shots. And he mixed up his own serve cagily, always keeping Isner off balance, seldom giving anything away. Fish is comfortable wearing the robe reserved for the No. 1 American. After defending a title for the first time in his career, I believe Fish will have a terrific summer. He has left his Davis Cup disappointments behind him, and is looking forward to his best ever Olympus U.S. Open Series.

Isner, meanwhile, is back to No. 33 in the world, and there is no reason why he should not be among the top 20 by the end of the year. Once more, it will be a daunting prospect for anyone to see Isner standing across the net on the hard courts. His first serve is one of the five best in tennis and he has found his range again off the forehand. Isner is going to make a lot of opponents awfully uncomfortable in the weeks and months ahead. The same can be said for Ryan Harrison, a fearless individual who is rapidly growing into his game and exploring the boundaries of his talent.

Throw a still determined and unwavering Andy Roddick into the equation and— at least for the time being— American tennis is looking like a better and brighter place than has been the case for quite a while.

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