Swimming Upstream

Monday, July 26, 2010 /by

Mf We’re used to measuring with a big scale in the United States. World-domination big. Anything less than total victory in international competition is looked at as a symbol of moral decline, another sign of a tottering giant that's being pulled to the ground by a globe filled with hungrier and smarter Lilliputians. We shake our heads: How can we, the United States, with all of our money, not win every gold medal, every basketball trophy, every golf major, every tennis Grand Slam? We’re famous for being optimistic, but we’re equally, and rightfully, famous for being paranoid.

Which means that Sunday’s men's final in Atlanta won’t send any shockwaves through the country’s sporting world—the New York Times gave it only the barest of mentions. And it was hardly an earth-shaking event. The tournament was modest and the draw American-centric. The finalists, John Isner and Mardy Fish, weren’t ranked in the Top 10, and it’s a stretch to think that either of them will ever win a major, let alone reach No. 1 in the world, our preferred status. But looked at through a more realistic, glass-half-full lens, it was a good day for the sport in the U.S.

A year after Indianapolis, a stalwart of the men’s tour for decades, was unable to find a title sponsor for its event, Atlanta brought that tournament and the pro game to a town that loves tennis. The stadium wasn’t huge, but the seats were close, and when I watched they were full. The fans, in that American tradition, cheered as if the U.S. players were family members. After one bad miss by Fish on Sunday, several people in the crowd called out sympathetically, “Come on, Mardy,” as if he’d been hurt, as if he needed a little emotional support from a friend.

And while, like I said, neither player is going to be the next Roger Federer—Isner is a young-looking 25, Fish a grizzled 28—they’re both playing the best tennis of their careers. What’s more satisfying, and, in the end, entertaining, is that each of them is visibly making changes to improve their games. Isner is quicker and more decisive getting around the ball to hit an inside-out forehand than he once was—at times, he can even look, well, explosive. And intelligent: Yesterday Isner used looping ground strokes on first balls to push Fish back and set up his forehand gun. He put together one very fine drop shot-lob volley combination, and, as always, he competed well. It looked for most of the match that Fish would never find an answer to his high-bounding kick serve on break points in the ad court. The ability to wipe away breakers with one swing is crucial at this level, and Isner’s kick gives him a safe way to do it (he’s ninth on tour in break points saved, at 67 percent). For long periods of this match, Isner fully utilized his size advantage and played the points on his terms.

Maybe it was the friendly fan support, or maybe it was the improvements Fish has made to his own game, but he did find the answer, however briefly, to Isner’s serve. He began charging the kick in the ad court and opening up points by sending his backhand down the line, a smart play considering that Isner is a little slow covering that part of the court. This allowed Fish to take control of a few rallies and finally get the big guy moving side to side. Like Isner, Fish appears to be a new player this year. He’s lost 30 pounds; he almost looks too skinny compared to his old self. I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that shedding that much weight can do a lot for your game, but Fish is a different, much spryer—and potentially opportunistic—player after the serve now. We might ask why he didn’t lose the weight before he turned 28. On the other hand, looking ahead, we might wonder how much more his game could change in his improved condition. What will Fish be able to do that he couldn’t do before, and how can he exploit the possibilities? Will he lose anything in the process? As a kid, he was seen as Andy Roddick's equal in terms of tennis talent. Since Wimbledon, he’s beaten Roddick and won two straight tournaments for the first time in his career.

Still, I thought Isner was going to win this one. He appeared to be the mentally stronger and more stable of the two, dictating play and finding ways to hold serve just when the momentum seemed ready to go against him. When Isner went down a break in the third set, he immediately revived himself and even held break point at 4-4. Even though he looked gassed by the end, I expected him to find a way again. Tiebreakers are where he lives, but he couldn’t survive this one. Isner said that he was particularly disappointed yesterday, because it’s the third very close final he’s lost in 2010 (the first two defeats came to Sam Querrey). I don’t think this is due to choking. When you live on the edge as often as Isner does, you’re going to fall off of it now and then. His falls have come at the wrong time, but you do wonder whether they’ll begin to affect his mindset in future finals.

Let those worries remain in the future for now. The important thing, from an American-tennis standpoint, is that Isner is making finals, and Fish is winning them. We hear a lot about how the U.S. players aren’t as entertaining, style-wise, as the current group of Europeans. And for the most part it’s true; Americans play a heavy-serving, heavy-footed brand of tennis. But there are more ways to entertain a crowd of paying customers than hitting a flowing backhand. One is to make us feel like you care enough about your games to make them better, to give us a new wrinkle or a new commitment to fitness. This year Fish and Isner have shown us that one other reason we watch tennis, and sports in general, is to be reminded that our efforts can lead to success—sometimes pain really can mean gain. That's something even an American fan should be able to celebrate.

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