Tennis

US Open is great opportunity for Fish

FOXSports.com's Richard Evans previews the men's draw at the US Open.
FOXSports.com's Richard Evans previews the men's draw at the US Open.
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Richard Evans

Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." Follow him on Twitter.

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Apart from the top four who continue to maintain their viselike grip on all things big on the men’s tour, no one will go into the US Open at Flushing Meadows with a keener sense of anticipation than Mardy Fish.

Few observers expected to see the day when Andy Roddick’s Boca High School chum would go into the year’s final Grand Slam seeded eight places higher than Andy at No. 7, and seemingly with a better chance of going deep into the second week.

2011 US Open

2011 US Open

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But although Roddick has made a welcome, and not unsuccessful, return to the ATP tour in Winston-Salem, NC, this week, it is the slimmed-down, newly confident Fish who has been strutting his stuff through the entire US Open Series, winning the title over another American hopeful, John Isner, in Atlanta, and reaching the final in Los Angeles as well as the ATP Masters 1000 event in Montreal.

The following week, Fish maintained good form in reaching the semifinal in Cincinnati to ensure he finished on top of the US Open Series points table.

So, inevitably, the spotlight now has Fish in its sights, and he is not yet completely comfortable in its glare.

“It’s much harder to play when you are supposed to win,” he said after reaching the final in Montreal. “I’m not sure I’m totally confident just yet with the idea of being the American No. 1. But I’ve put in the hard work, and I’ve figured out a way to play against the top guys, which was something I had struggled with before. I’ve matured. I would like to be 24 again, but I’m not, and I have learned from past mistakes, from taking the talent I have a little bit too much for granted early on in my career.”

Fish takes nothing for granted now. He’s 29, married and well aware that the autumn of a player’s career begins in his 30s.

Frank Sinatra used to tell us that the days and the years “dwindle down to a precious few,” and Fish intends to make the most of them. He will be lucky if he gets a better opportunity than right now, at this US Open, because he is fit and on form, which is not something all of the Gang of Four can claim.

In fact, surprisingly, it is Andy Murray, the only one of the quartet without a Grand Slam title, who is being touted by some as the favorite. John McEnroe is one of them.

“Murray’s the hungriest guy out there,” the three-time US Open winner says.

The Scot is also the fittest and the one showing the best recent form. Obviously No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic was tired and not quite fit when he lost to Murray in the final of Cincinnati, but Murray had reached that stage without losing a set — beating Fish in the semis — and has every reason to believe that this is his big chance.

Djokovic, if his shoulder problem has completely cleared up, will take a great deal of beating because, apart from his retirement against Murray he has created this amazing record of having lost only one other match all year — to Roger Federer at the French Open. The pair are drawn to meet in the semifinals if both get that far, and one wonders whether the Swiss has the consistency to last through seven matches at a Slam.

There is no doubt the conditions suit Federer — how else would he have won the title five straight times? — nor is there any doubt that he still possesses the ability to produce some scintillating tennis. But a fit Djokovic is a machine, and if all the working parts are in order, it is hard to see how anyone can break it down.

Murray — more than Rafael Nadal, who is in his half of the draw — has looked more capable of worrying Djokovic this year, having served for the match when they met in the semifinals in Rome. He also looked comfortable in dealing with whatever Djokovic was able to throw at him last week. So Murray may be the opponent Djokovic least wants to meet among the top guns.

Nadal, of course, cannot be counted out; he is the defending champion, after all. But this has been a difficult year for the popular Spaniard. He managed to hang on to his French crown, but almost everywhere else he has been thwarted by the vastly improved Serb, and the succession of defeats he has suffered appears to have eaten into his psyche.

At the moment, this Rafa is not the same player who won his third Slam of 2010 here, riding the crest of a seemingly unstoppable wave.

The way the draw has panned out looks like this: If all the seeds were to reach the third round — which almost never happens, but remains a useful guideline — Djokovic will play the rising Croatian Ivan Dodig; Fish will play his old Davis Cup rival Michael Llodra; Federer will play Marin Cilic; Isner should meet Robin Soderling; it should be Murray against Feliciano Lopez; Roddick vs. another Spaniard, Nicolas Almagro; while Nadal will be up against the veteran Ivan Ljubicic.

If Fish survives that round, it could get immediately more difficult. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who had an excellent summer, should meet him in the sixteens.

Ryan Harrison is another American who will have full crowd support, and the seriously professional and seriously improving teenager will need it when he faces Cilic and his massive serve in the first round. Harrison has been on a steady upward curve in recent weeks, and a win against Cilic would be another significant step forward.

Everything to play for — this is the US Open, the biggest annual, fixed-venue sporting event in America.

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