A semis Open run could put Fish among tennis’ great

Imagine if Mardy Fish had lost in the first round of the U.S. Open on Tuesday to the obscure Czech Jan Hajek rather than pulling off a sturdy 6-0, 3-6, 4-6, 6-0, 6-1 victory.

All those good feelings that he had built up after the best summer of his career would have been dashed, but instead, after two rocky sets where he was spraying the ball and being dictated to, his superior fitness and hardcourt know paid off as he survived brutal heat and humidity and an occasionally zoning opponent.

The 28-year-old is capable of contending at the U.S. Open, not necessarily for the title, but at least for the semifinals, which would match the best result of one of his American peers, Robby Ginepri, and give him one better than another, James Blake.

Men who do not reach the semis of a major do not go down in history as great players. At this point in his career, Fish has been a good one and at times — like this summer — a very good one, as he won titles in Newport and Atlanta and reached the finals of the Masters Series Cincinnati, where he pushed Roger Federer to three sets.

But had he lost to Hajek, a solid yet unspectacular player, all those pre-U.S. Open accolades would have sounded premature. All the talk about the positive affect of his weight loss, his newfound love of sound nutrition, how much prouder he is when he looks in the mirror would have been sunken in hundreds of sweat beads he and Hajek splashed all over Armstrong Court.

"It was a scary position to be in, no doubt about it," Fish said. "Sitting there in the changeover, I wasn’t thinking, ‘No way can I lose this, because guys can beat anybody. But I just didn’t want to sort of go out kind of playing like I was playing. I wanted to play a little more aggressive, to say the least. I knew that it was still a long ways away. (He) still has to win a whole set.

"I was close in those couple sets. But this is a new position for me. It’s new sort of to have a lot of expectations, have a lot of people talking about you. It’s a new spot for me, and it’s where we want to be, but I’ll have to get used to it."

Fish responded just fine, in much the same manner than has seen him take out world No. 4 Andy Murray three times in a row and his close friend Andy Roddick two straight times. He served big, handily took care of his volleys, used his two handed backhand as hatchet and largely kept his forehand under control. He didn’t tire at all, saying that when he took down big John Isner in the Atlanta final back in July it was 100 degrees.

He’s quicker and isn’t bailing out of rallies. But don’t think that this lighter Fish is a completely different player or man — he isn’t, he’s just a significantly improved player who says that his denial of greasy pizzas means that he knows his body won’t let him down as often, and he doesn’t have to conserve so much energy in matches. His physical reserve has deepened, and so has his confidence.

Consequently, he’s a real contender in his quarter. The 19th-seeded Fish won’t have to play another seed in the third round as French veteran Arnaud Clement upset No. 16 Marcos Baghdatis, No. 3 Novak Djokovic could be his fourth round opponent, but the Serbian needed five sets to survive Victor Troicki and hasn’t been exactly a world beater this summer. Roddick might be his quarterfinal foe, but Fish took his former housemate out in Atlanta and at Cincinnati.

The opportunity is clearly there for Fish, hook, line and sinker. He has a realistic chance to reach his first Grand Slam final four, but he’s going to show the rest of the field that his summer run wasn’t just one of his once-a-year hot streaks.

"I’ve never done (reached a Slam semi)," he said. And then on the other hand, I feel like a completely different player. I know that I am. So how far that takes me, I have no idea. But I’ve never been fitter and never been mentally as strong. I’ve never wanted it more, and so hopefully that goes a long way. …

"I haven’t shown that I can beat the top players in three out of five sets, because it’s much different than two out of three. But coming off a tournament like Cincinnati, you know, every guy that I played there was either in the top 10 or was just in the top 10. I know that I can beat those guys in two out of three sets, but I haven’t shown it in three out of five."

Fish does not have an excellent three out of five set record (it now stands at 4-7) and neither does his buddy James Blake (4-13), but Blake didn’t have to go to great lengths to secure a victory on Tuesday, powering past Kristof Vliegen 6 3, 6 2, 6 4. It was an emotional day for No. 108-ranked Blake, who has struggled with knee injuries all year and has said that he will take substantial time off after the U.S. Open to see if he can’t get fit again.

Now past the age of 30, if he can even win a few more matches it would be considered a success, let alone coming close to producing his level of five years ago, when he nearly knocked off Andre Agassi in a dramatic quarterfinal.

"Any time you win a match, harken back to the days when my biggest goal and biggest dream was to win a round at the U.S. Open," said Blake, who will play Canadian youngster Pete Polansky in the next round. "Somewhere along the way to some people it started to get taken for granted. It’s still exciting for me to win a match here, to have fans that are excited to see me play. Really just happy to get through and hopefully put as little stress on my body as possible since it’s getting older and there’s plenty of miles on it these days."

NOTEBOOK

Top seed Rafa Nadal served very well in overcoming Russian Teymuraz Gabashvili 7-6(4) 7-6(4) 6-3, but he played careful most of the night and admitted that he will need to play more courageously if he wants to win his first U.S. Open title. Nadal says he’s is least comfortable at the U.S. Open amongst all the majors because the balls are lighter and he can’t used as much topspin. Nadal could be headed to a fourth round clash with his friend, the threatening David Nalbandian, who survived Rik De Voest. However, Nalbandian is in a tough segment with two of Nadal’s fellow Spaniards, Fernando Verdasco and David Ferrer… No. 3 Novak Djokovic, who always struggles in the heat, was encouraged with his five set win over Viktor Troicki. The Serbian joked that when shade finally covered the court, it felt like he was sleeping with his girlfriend…Jeremy Chardy took out No. 24 Ernests Gulbis, who continues to disappoint at the majors.