Baker, Fish can’t hold off Europeans

On the eve of the Fourth of July, Serena Williams stood alone as the last American in singles at Wimbledon. Her 6-3, 7-5 quarterfinal victory over Petra Kvitova ended the Czech’s reign as champion under the Centre Court roof as glowering skies and sporadic rain made it another miserable day for players and spectators alike.

But there was nothing Mardy Fish or Brian Baker could do to prevent a European takeover of the men’s quarterfinals. Fish, one set up against athletic Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga overnight, played well but not well enough to prevent a 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 6-4 defeat. Baker was simply outhit by Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber and lost 6-1, 7-6 (4), 6-3.

So with David Ferrer ousting Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 with surprising ease, the tournament’s final eight are comprised of players from Serbia, Switzerland, Great Britain, Spain, France, Russia and two from Germany. Fish was not surprised. “It’s the way the circuit is. It’s a European-dominated sport right now.”

Serena is doing her best to make sure that is not entirely the case. Getting off to a fast start, she piled the pressure on the tall Czech left-hander and never took her foot off the pedal. She got the final, vital breakthrough when Kvitova dumped an easy volley into the net at 5-5 in the second set. Kvitova generally served well, but Williams’ return game was working properly for the first time in the tournament and, although she wants it to get even better, it provided the difference today.

In the postmatch news conference, Serena had her game face on as she so often does when she can smell a big title in the offing. The only thing she became animated about was the fact that the match had been played under the roof — a first-time experience for her.

“I loved it,” she enthused. “It was amazing for me. There were no elements, no excuses. I loved the sound of the balls. It’s kind of like a whoosh and a pop. It’s really cool. It’s almost like a video game, but you’re playing. It kind of flies through and you hear it when it lands.”

Given the weather forecast, Serena may not have seen the last of the roof and her video games. The very thought of it brings a whole new dimension to playing on Wimbledon’s Centre Court. Tennis in the modern age.

Baker’s defeat ended a European odyssey that exceeded his wildest dreams. After six years out of action and eight surgeries, the quiet man from Nashville, Tenn., was entering unknown territory when he arrived to play on European clay in May, only to find himself in his first ATP Tour final at Nice. Then he qualified for the French Open and won a round, following it up with more qualifying for Wimbledon and reaching the final 16 on his first appearance here.

“If someone had told me when I left (the States) ranked like 220 and then to leave — I don’t know what I’ll be now, maybe around 80 — I would have been very, very happy,” Baker said. “If you take the whole trip, it’s been great. It’s been unbelievable. I’ve gained a lot of confidence and proven that I can stay healthy playing a lot of matches. Basically since I’ve been coming back, it’s been about health, and now it’s about the game. So that’s a good thing.”

None of that eradicated the fact that Baker felt very frustrated at his loss to Kohlschreiber, who played every bit as well as he did while ending the run of Rafael Nadal’s conqueror, Lukas Rosol, in the previous round.

“I think his serve is really solid — better than solid for a guy his size,” said Baker, who stands 6 feet 3 to his opponent’s 5-10. “He’s popping it a lot harder than I am. There were a couple of games when he missed first serves, but any time like I felt I got a sniff, he would hit an ace on the line or just inside the line. So that was very frustrating because normally I break at least once or twice in a match. Not to break once, that’s really difficult.”

Kohlschreiber had nothing but good things to say about the American. “I would say he has a really good game for the faster surface,” he said. “Also on hard court on the US tour, for sure, he will be great success. He was very focused. I wish him all the luck. He’s a good guy on court.”

With the frustrations that American players have faced during this European swing, Baker has emerged as a totally unexpected plus. Discovering he can play at this level and can mix it up with the big boys, despite doing little more than play challengers and club tennis while coaching over the past couple of years, has given Baker huge confidence.

“Tennis, like any other sport, a ton of that’s confidence,” he said. “You might not be hitting the ball that much better, but if you’re confident and your opponent senses it. You play the big points better.”

Fish lost because he couldn’t play the big points better than Tsonga. He, too, was frustrated because he felt he played well but couldn’t come up with the goods.

“I played better yesterday before the rain break than I did today, so who knows what happens if we didn’t stop?” Fish said. “Looking at the stats, I actually won more points than he did (138 to 137). It’s kind of a bummer, but I’m certainly satisfied with the way I played today. Got better and better as the tournament went.”

Tsonga, whom some see as a possible winner here this year, certainly came up with the big serves when he needed them, hitting four aces out of the five service points he had in the second-set tiebreak — which, as he was a set down, was obviously crucial.

Both players had problems with their backs during the match, and both went off for treatment.

“Usually on grass, it’s your low back and hips that are the first things to go,” Fish said. “Those didn’t feel great with the stopping and starting, which doesn’t help at all, especially for me as I haven’t been able to train as much as I would have liked. But it was certainly not the reason I lost.”

Tsonga will face Kohlschreiber, while Ferrer will meet Andy Murray, who played his best tennis of the tournament while defeating big-serving Croatian Marin Cilic 7-5, 6-2, 6-3. Murray will have to serve as well as he did today to stop the ever-improving Spaniard, who is enjoying the best year of his career at age 30.

Somebody used the term “clay-court specialist” while describing Ferrer, but Murray was having none of it. “No, he’s not,” Murray shot back. “To me, he’s not a clay-court specialist. He won last week on grass in Holland, so he’s won, what, eight matches in a row on grass. He’s been in the semifinals of the Australian and, I think, the US Open. From playing him and watching him, he’s playing very well.”