Nate Chura is senior tennis pro at the Heights Casino in Brooklyn and covers the U.S. Open for WNYC.
American Mardy Fish narrowly escaped being devoured this afternoon in his first-round match of the U.S. Open. The No. 19 seed took a quick lead after bageling his opponent, Jan Hajek, 6-0 in 20 minutes flat. But the Czech shark wouldn’t relent so easily, capturing the second and third sets. In the end, however, Fish was able to turn the tide and put Hajek out of his misery 6-0, 3-6, 4-6, 6-0, 6-1. All in all, the episode lasted just over two and a half hours. Fish was overjoyed with the win.
“I won!” he exclaimed afterwards in the press room, to raucous laughter.
It’s hard to say how exactly Fish lost his way. “I started out great,” he said. “I made one unforced error in the entire first set. [I] played a bad game early in the second and he held, served well, held throughout there. [At] 4‑all in the third set, he hit four winners, broke me there, and played a long game the next game and he held. Next thing you know, you're down two sets to one thinking, you know, maybe you're going home. That's not where I want to be right now, so I was lucky to turn it around and play a little more aggressive. I was playing a little too defensive.”
One theory tossed around was that the new, lean, mean, reinvented Fish had perhaps lost too much weight, a notion promptly dismissed by the American. “I don't think so,” he said. “I mean, I haven't put myself in that position yet. I just played a five‑setter in the French in the first round and then a five‑setter in the French in the second round that I lost 10‑8 in the fifth. But I felt my body felt fine. That wasn't the reason that I lost.”
Fish did admit he may have felt a little pressure coming into the match. The expectations were certainly high after a successful summer hard-court season. There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding Fish of late.
“It was a scary position to be in, no doubt about it,” he said about coming out of the third set. “Sitting there in the changeover, I was thinking, you know, no way can I lose this. I just didn't want to go out 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, you know. But this is a new position for me, you know. 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, you know, for sure.”
“But I'll have to get used to it,” he added.
Fish will play Argentine Pablo Cuevas in the next round.
As good as Fish’s win was, the real heart-warmer of the day came at the hands of fellow American James Blake. Ranked No. 108 in the world, he received a wild-card into the main draw. No one expected much from the former Davis Cupper as he walked to Louis Armstrong Stadium to play Belgian Kristof Vliegen. But Blake didn’t let the opportunity to play another match in New York slip by. He thrashed Vliegen in straight sets 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.
“It’s a great feeling,” Blake said after the match. “It's still exciting for me to win a match here, to have fans that are excited to see me play and get to play again in front of some great fans. I'm happy to get through. Kristof's a great player. [He’s] beaten me before. He's had some unfortunate injury problems in the last year or so. I know he probably wasn't at his best today and hasn't been at his best this year, but he fought hard, taking advantage of a late break, really made me work for it at the end.
“[I’m] 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.”
At Monday night’s opening ceremony, Blake was one of the honorees, along with Martina Navratilova and wheelchair champion—the most winningest athlete in history—Esther Vergeer. It’s not a stretch to say that some may have viewed the honor as a fitting farewell.
Blake himself couldn’t deny it crossed his mind. “A couple people mentioned something like that to me,” he said smiling. “They're trying to get rid of me already. I hope that's not the case. But, you know, I was just really honored to be there."
"When I got the call or email first, actually about being a part of it, I didn't tell any of my friends or even my coach or anyone, because I thought in a couple weeks they were going to call and tell me, we found someone better! Forget it! You don't need to be here for it.
“I remember people talking about the scoliosis being such a great effort, going to the Shriner's Hospital, wearing a back brace, to me it seemed normal, because it's the only thing I knew. The only thing I knew was to come back when I was hurt. It really is something to look back on when I'm done playing. I guess it's okay to look back while I'm still playing. I think I'll appreciate it even more when I'm done and know there are kids out there that looked up to me, there are people that hopefully were inspired and saw that I succeeded in what I wanted to do.
“I don't think I want to put it all into perspective quite yet, because I think I've got more career left in me, more good tennis. I'm looking forward to that. Then when I'm done, I really hope I can sit back and really be proud. That was the first and only goal I've ever had in tennis, when I put my racquets down to know I did the best I could and have no regrets.
“Last night was a good step to showing I've done my best so far.”
Blake also shared his thoughts about his friend and fellow American, Fish. “He’s playing great,” said Blake about his former Davis Cup teammate. “I remember a couple years ago when he played me here. I've always seen him. I practice with him all the time, so I know he's got a ton of talent. Seemed like he kept getting snake bit. Get a little roll going, then he'd get injured.
“Now he's been healthy this whole year. He's really committed to his fitness, to his nutrition. The results are showing. When he's playing well, there's no doubt in my mind he's a top 20 player. It's just a matter of him staying healthy. He's committed to it. Doesn't mean there's a guarantee. There's still bad luck. Anyone can roll an ankle. Doesn't matter how fit you are; you can roll an ankle, pull a hamstring.
“He's doing everything he can now to be a success and it's showing. Even though he's not my neighbor anymore, I kind of miss him. He's still one of my best friends. He's just doing great, singles and doubles. He's competing so hard, even grinding out a few matches. I mean, I know maybe a few years ago when he was young, if he won the first set 6‑0 and lost the next two sets, there might be a few smashed racquets in his bag, he might have been a little upset, but he fought hard today and continues to do that. I'm really happy for him.
“It's a great sign for American tennis to let people know that it's not just Andy and myself, the guys that are getting older. It's not Isner and Querrey, the young guys. Mardy has been a great player for a long time. He deserves a ton of credit.”