Fish impresses in victory over Almagro

These are exciting times for Mardy Fish. Still regarded as something of an unlikely American No. 1, Fish seems to be relishing the challenge of hanging on to his No. 8 world ranking and trying to help the United States win the Davis Cup.

A big quarterfinal clash against France at the Monte Carlo Country Club is coming up next week, but, in the meantime, Fish is concentrating on defending the ATP Tour points he won here at the Sony Ericsson Open last year when he reached the semifinals before losing to Novak Djokovic.

He took another important step towards that goal today with an impressive display Tuesday on the Grandstand Court when he defeated Spain’s Nicolas Almagro — one of the most successful players on tour this year — 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-3 to reach the last eight.

Fish seemed to be rushing towards a rapid victory when he went ahead by a break in the second set, but the powerful Spaniard, who has a 22-6 record this year after playing well on clay in South America, refused to buckle, broke back and went on to win what Fish called “the highest quality breaker I have played all year.”

Two aces and a bunch of winners were still not enough for Fish to win it, but he quickly put that behind him and reasserted his authority on the match in the third set once he escaped from a break point at 2-2. After a long rally of more than 20 shots, Fish came in behind a good approach to Almagro’s backhand and scored with a delicate drop volley. After that, the 12th-seeded Spaniard had no more answers.

Naturally, Fish was delighted with Andy Roddick’s win over Roger Federer the night before. The Boca Raton, Fla., high school teammates have remained very close, and Fish quickly knocked back a suggestion that he might like to see Roddick disappear from the tour to make life easier for him.

“No, I don’t,” he replied. “He’s one of my best friends. I was texting with his wife (Brooklyn Decker) last night at 3:30 in the morning for her because she’s in Germany doing publicity for her new movie and she was watching on live scores. I had to tell her how to go and get it on video. She was just watching the scores click over. How bad is that? We’re very close, all of us. No one was more happy, more excited for him than me. Maybe his wife or family or something, but I was certainly excited for the way he was playing. We’re all on the same team. I’m on Team Roddick. He’s on Team Fish.”

On Stadium Court, a big crowd was given a wonderful exhibition of uninhibited shot making from France’s Richard Gasquet, who possesses one of the best-looking one-handed backhands in the world. The No. 17 seed slaps a good forehand, too, but it is unreliable. As he was facing world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, he never managed to capitalize on some glorious winners and went down 7-5, 6-3 despite making the Serb work exceptionally hard in the first set.

The first game of fourth-seeded Andy Murray’s match against another Frenchman, Gilles Simon, lasted all of 17 minutes and included three break points against the Scot’s serve. Most of the rallies were a dozen strokes or longer, and both players were feeling the heat before a game had been completed. Holding serve gave Murray a good psychological edge after all that, and he quickly took charge against a man he had lost to only once in nine previous meetings, winning 6-3, 6-4.

Earlier in the day, Rafael Nadal was given a good work out by talented Japanese player Kei Nishikori but came through 6-4, 6-4. The only concern for the Spaniard was the apparent worsening of a knee injury he suffered at Indian Wells. Nadal had it strapped midway through the first set, but the problem did not seem to impair his movement as Nishikori tested his water-tight defenses with deep, raking drives.

“During Indian Wells, the left knee was getting a little bit worse,” said Nadal, whose knees used to give him a lot more trouble than they have recently. “So I arrive here so-so and am just happy I still play in the quarterfinals. For me, here is very important tournament and every victory is very, very big value for me, especially without being perfect. But important thing is that after this I have two weeks to recover for Monte Carlo.”

If the knee does get worse, Nadal will face a difficult decision. Monte Carlo is a tournament very close to his heart. He never has lost there, winning the title all seven years that he has played. It is an astonishing record, but, to balance that, he never has won in Miami and would dearly like to do so. It’s the dilemma of a champion.

In the quarters, Nadal will face big Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who scored a 6-3, 6-2 victory over Florian Mayer, the German who put out John Isner in the second round.

In women’s play, No. 2 seed Maria Sharapova, playing with increasing confidence, ended a four-match losing streak against China’s Li Na by beating the reigning French Open champion 6-3, 6-0. Li had beaten Sharapova on grass at Birmingham, England, in 2009, repeated that result in the final there the next year and then went on to beat the Russian on clay at Roland Garros and at the WTA Championships in Istanbul last year.

“I came into this match losing to her the last few times,” Sharapova said. “I really wanted to change that so I was extremely focused and looking forward to it. I was just really consistent, which is very important when playing my game in gusty conditions.”