Do Do Do Do Do, Do Do Do Do (Twilight Zone theme)

I’ve entered the Mardy Fish twilight zone: Comeback wins, meltdown immunity, gutsy 7-6 wins in the third set over some of the most mentally stringent players on tour.

Fish continued his uncanny run Friday at the Pacific Life Open, shaking off David Nalbandian 6-3, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (4) in the quarterfinals after squandering two match points. Perhaps even more Rod Sterling-esque, Fish looked ready to implode after dropping his serve at 5-5 but broke the seventh-ranked Argentine at 5-6 on his way to a tiebreak-clinching win. He’s now 2-1 in tiebreakers this tournament after starting the season 0-5.

Fish, as some readers will well know, is the classic streak/confidence player. A first-strike hitter with a punishing serve, he has in the past been accused of laziness, both in his physical preparation, shot selection and mental toughness. I’ve seen him implode on so many occasions that I was sure he would cave in again after failing to capitalize on two break points leading 4-3 in the third and then losing two match points when he held a 5-4, 15-40 advantage on Nalbandian’s serve. 

“I kind of felt like I was done, to be honest,” said Fish later. Ditto here. So much for history. 

The 98th-ranked Fish, who almost needed a wild card to get into the draw, has now beaten three very quality opponents in No. 31 Igor Andreev, No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko and Nalbandian. It’s the first time the 26-year-old has beaten two top ten players in the same event – something he didn’t even do when he reached the finals of the ’03 Cincy Masters and took the silver medal in Athens in ’04, his highlight performances to date.

What can we make of this sudden turn? I can’t say I’m a Fish believer just yet. In fact, the damage he’s inflicted here on the upper echelons of the men’s game just tells me how close all these guys are and how momentum can be the difference over the course of a week. As Fish acknowledged when asked if he was more “committed to the fight” than in years past, he said: “Everybody's competitive. Everybody wants to win.”

While Fish’s upset of former No. 1 Hewitt looked like the obvious confidence hump he needed pass over, he said Friday it was his manhandling of Russian Davydenko in the match before that turned the tide. “If I can beat someone like Nikolay, you know, 6-3 and 6-2, I feel like I can beat everybody,” he said. 

Every big run needs an explanation, and Fish credited his reunion with coach Kelly Jones, with whom he worked previously when he ascended to a career-best No. 17 in March 2004, as well as his work with trainer Rory Cordial, who he’s worked with since last summer.

“I got away from playing my game, playing aggressive, and playing kind of almost hitormiss type tennis and not giving anybody any rhythm,” said Fish of his treading-water 2007 season in which he inched up to No. 39 from No. 47 after coming back from wrist surgery in 2005 to win the ATP’s Comeback Player of the Year. “That's my style, and (Jones) was the one that came back in the picture and showed me how to do that.”

He added: “My results….after Memphis of last year all the way through New Haven were pretty pathetic in my eyes.”

The 6-2 righty, who will marry “Deal or No Deal” model Stacey Gardner later this year and turned pro in 2000, also said maturity might have something to do with his new self-belief. “I mean, you know, just growing older and getting married soon, it all, you know, adds up,” said the Minnesota-born Floridian.

Fish was clearly pleased to be in a semifinal foursome that includes the top three players in the world, Roger Federer (who got a walkover from sinus-suffering Tommy Haas), Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. But he wouldn’t necessarily call it the best week of his pro career. “I leave that up to you guys,” he told journalists. “It's a great run so far, and definitely wellneeded, big time needed for me.”

Nalbandian paid him complements, too. “He's always dangerous,” he said of Fish.  “It's not strange for me that see him play like that.”  Fish will have to be at his best to do damage against semifinal opponent Federer, who is rested and hungry for his first title of 2008. Fish didn’t sound intimidated.

“I just beat a guy who beat him the past two times,” he said of Nalbandian. “You know, the thing is you have to walk out there and you have to feel like you can beat him. I feel like I can beat anybody right now. I feel like I can win tight matches against really high quality players who are really tough, you know, in tiebreaks and third sets and things like that, and that gives you a lot of confidence.”

Nalbandian even gave him a fighting chance at the imperious Swiss, against whom Fish has won just one set in five matches. “It's not easy to win a lot of matches with good guys in a row, but if he play like today, why not?” he said.

Hey, when you're in the Twilight Zone, plots can take some strange twists.

Speaking of Nalbandian, for a sampler at how interesting and enthused this guy can be in press conferences, win or lose, take a look at this exchange from today:

Q.  Were you looking forward to playing Roger again and maybe beating him a third time in a row?


Q.  Do you have some insight or some secrets on how that's done?


Q.  Would you like to share them or something?


Q.  So you really think you could beat him again?  You're looking forward to it?


Up close with Roger: Wandering the grounds late this afternoon, I came upon a crowd gathering at Court 3, so I wandered over. There was Federer, playing a practice match against Mario Ancic. The couple hundred fans surrounding the court couldn’t believe their eyes and good fortune. They were much closer to Federer than they would almost ever be in the main stadium.


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