Blake and Fish Carry the USA Flag

Coming into the Pacific Life Open, hopes were high for Andy Roddick and Sam Querrey, who were coming off statement weeks. Roddick had beaten two of the top three players in the world for the first time in one event on his way to a win in Dubai and Querrey captured his first ATP Tour title in Vegas. But here we are on Wednesday night and the two Americans making waves are James Blake (not a huge surprise) and Mardy Fish (much more surprising).

No. 98 Fish, recovered from shoulder surgery, took a big stride in his comeback in beating No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko yesterday. The Tampa resident came up even bigger Wednesday, impressively avoiding his customary letdown to knock off No. 24 Lleyton Hewitt 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (4). Australian Hewitt isn’t the player he used to be when he finished No. 1 in 2001-02, but he remains one of the tour’s mentally toughest opponents. Finishing him off in a final-set tiebreak is not a small feat, especially since Fish has a penchant for folding and hadn’t won a breaker in ’08.

A content looking Fish later revealed that he and coach Kelly Jones had a chat about his approach to breakers earlier in the week. It was timely. “We sat down and had a nice conversation about some of the things I need to focus on during it,” explained Fish. “For whatever reason, I was just, you know, was maybe a little content with getting to the tiebreak and then saying, ‘Okay this is a crapshoot. It might go my way and might not.’ I don't think that's the right way to do it. We focused on making first serves and staying aggressive, and that was the case (today).”

More important, Fish was able to string together back-to-back upsets and keep his composure, which is another area where he has faltered in the past. He’s always had a big game, but his self-belief and his shot-selection have sometimes let him down. Earlier in the day, Blake described his “best friend” and Saddlebrook neighbor Fish as a confidence player. Fish didn’t disagree.

“I really feel like when I do play well and when I really put things together, I can beat a lot of players,” he said. The key this week, unlike some of his other stellar runs, hasn’t been his serve. Rather, the 26-year-old is playing as well from the baseline than at any time in his career, especially off his forehand, which former coach Todd Martin helped him revamp.

Fish has never beaten two top-10 players in the same tournament but he can do so when he faces No. 7 David Nalbandian in the quarterfinals on Friday. He owns a 1-0 record over the Argentine, taking him down back in ’03 on his way to the Cincy Masters final, where he lost to Roddick.
Coming into the desert, Blake wasn’t exactly off the radar. The ninth-ranked American is always tough on cement. The 28-year-old has had a much better start to the seaon than a year ago, reaching the last eight in Melbourne and the final in Delray Beach, where he lost to Japanese teen Kei Nishikori. This week, he manhandled Carlos Moya in the round of 32 and then blasted by Richard Gasquet 6-4, 6-2 Wednesday - his first win in two tries against the flashy Frenchman.

Blake said he is coming into the spring hardcourt swing better rested than in ’07, when he suffered bad losses in the second round at Indian Wells to Julien Benneteau and in the first round at Key Biscayne to Florent Serra. This year, he skipped Memphis to rest his ailing knee, part of a constant tweaking process with his coach and trainer to find the right balance of rest, practice and matches. “We've been wrong throughout my career at times, and we've been right,” said Blake. Now healthy and back to playing his brand of “first-strike” tennis, it looks like they’ve landed on the right formula again - exactly the kind that can cause problems for his next opponent, No. 2 Rafael Nadal.

Blake is the only player on the men’s circuit to defeat Nadal three times without a loss (Hewitt is 4-3, Dominik Hrbaty is 3-1, Nalbandian is 2-0). As Blake pointed out, he’s run into Nadal when he’s been playing some of his best tennis. He beat the 21-year-old on his way to his first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the ’05 U.S. Open, on his run to the final here in ’06 and in the round-robin portion of the Masters Cup, where he also reached the final in ’06. Not a bad troika. He’s also never played the mashin’ Mallorcan on dirt.

“All three of those are three of my best tournaments I've ever had just about, so he's caught me at maybe the wrong times and not on clay, so it's been good matchups for me,” said Blake. He’ll have to be at his best again as Nadal will be brimming with confidence after avenging his loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

The other big match of the day pitted Nadal and Tsonga in a rematch of the Aussie Open semifinals, where Tsonga humbled the Spaniard with his worst major loss 6-2, 6-3, 6-2. This time, Nadal forced his way into the contest and then used his mental toughness and experience to gut out a 6-7 (4), 7-6 (3) 7-5 win after trailing 2-5 in the third. There’s more to say about this match, and I may do so in a later post, but suffice it to say that this was an important match for Tsonga to prove that his run in Australia wasn’t lucky. Although he faltered while serving at 5-3 in the third, I came away with no doubts that he will be in the mix for more titles in ’08.

Some other random observations:

Are the Bryans slumping? A year after a career high 11 titles, the top-ranked tandem of Bob and Mike Bryan are title-less in ’08 after losing in the Max Mirnyi and Jamie Murray Wednesday. They lost in the quarterfinals 5-7, 6-4 (10-6). They have reached four finals, falling in Sydney, Delray Beach, San Jose and Las Vegas.

--Doctor hiatus: It’s no surprise to anyone who follows the sport of tennis that a medical time-out epidemic has taken over the sport. Players call trainers on court with increasing, and maddening, frequency. I’m not sure what has bucked the trend, but for some reason since I’ve arrived in the desert I haven’t seen one.

--Funny line of the day: During Blake’s press conference, a large – and I mean large – black beetle sauntered down the middle of the interview room, startling reporters and causing the transcriber to recoil. Quipped Blake: “Looks like someone lost their dog in here.”


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