The Meta Nationals

by: Peter Bodo | March 29, 2011

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by Pete Bodo

MIAMI, Fla.—It's a measure of how much tennis has changed, even more than how far it has come as a popular spectacle, that on a day when Mardy Fish struggled to press forward as the American standard-bearer at the Miami Masters, his fans were routinely drowned out by the Argentinians and other South Americans who had assembled, complete with the obligatory baby-blue-and-white striped Argentian soccer shirts and hand-painted signs, to help nudge Juan Martin del Potro into the quarterfinals.

Ole, Ole, Ole, Del-po, Del-po...

All else aside, I'm still trying to figure out what tribal, atavistic or, well, just plain juvenile gene would move theoretically mature men to paint their faces and/or chests to chant and cry out the name of another man. . .one who might be even younger than they, whose only real claim to fame is proficiency at the game of tennis. I mean, it's not like you need to do that stuff in order to properly appreciate the skills and virtues of a del Potro, or a Fish, right?

Ole, Ole, Ole, Del-po, Del-po...Is anyone else bored to death by the one-note singsong "Ole, Ole, Ole" thing yet?

It's not like the support for del Potro made much difference, either. Even Fish took it in stride. "I didn't know where I was," he mused after playing a fine match to advance to the semifinals, 6-4, 7-6 (5). "He (del Potro) certainly has a lot of support here. I didn't think it was going to be that much. He certainly had the crowd on his side...(But) I did hear some people rooting for me. I appreciate that."

Lest anyone get the wrong idea here, Fish wasn't complaining or being snide; he merely responded to a question put to him by a reporter. Besides, Fish and del Potro are buddies and have been doubles partners. After his resounding upset of Robin Soderling the other day, del Potro said of Fish, "Yeah, he's a great player. I'm very friend to him. He's a nice person, too. It will be a special match because I know him. He knows my game."

The friendship seems an unlikely one, given that del Potro is just 20 and from Argentina, while Fish is an American closing on 30. It wasn't so long ago that Delpo seemed a painfully shy and self-conscious teenager who usually walked with his head down to avoid eye contact and his shoulders slumped. But the two men hit it off when they played doubles together, in Madrid in 2009. And when Delpo hurt his wrist early in 2010 and subsequently missed almost the entire year, Fish remained in touch, via telephone and text message.

Describing how the friendship developed, Fish said: "I don't play doubles with too many guys outside of James and Andy, but he's certainly one of the best guys around. His team, you know, they just play. There's no nonsense, you know, coming from his box when you're playing him, or yelling or screaming.  There's no screaming from him. He's just a professional. It's pretty impressive at his age."

This type of relationship isn't unusual; even with the nationalistic undertones that sometimes infuse Davis Cup, the irony in contemporary tennis is that the players are nowhere near as jingoistic as some of their fans. They take the urges and longings of the crowd in stride, unless the degree of support is such that it provides one or the other player with an unfair advantage. And in that case, the player whose fans are out of line is likely to express his displeasure.

In many ways, the "international" nature of tennis is an illusion. Beyond the basics—place of birth, the accent one happens to carry—tennis players are basically meta-national. They constitute a class of like-minded and similarly trained artisans who have more in common with each other than their respective countryman.

Tennis obliterates rather than represents "internationalism," at least in the ways that really matter. Court surfaces offer another piece of evidence. Remember the days when it was commonly assumed that every nation tended to put tournaments on surfaces that favored its own players? They're mostly gone. The French Open isn't held on red clay because it's the surface on which French players do best; the determining factors are tradition and precedent.

The speed of the court here at Key Biscayne also supports the idea that people just don't care to favor one or another player, or group of players. They're looking for the surface that offers the most entertainment for fans and TV viewers. With a few exceptions, American players like Fish, Andy Roddick and James Blake have done much better on relatively fast courts. But U.S. tournament promoters are particularly interested in tailoring the court surfaces to suit them.

The other day, after beating Juan Monaco, Roger Federer said: "This is as slow as it gets on a hard court. It's a bit of clay...almost...except that you can't slide."

Fish, who's now on the verge of surpassing his pal Roddick in the U.S. pecking order, doesn't seem especially bothered by this state of affairs. Its almost as if phrases like "top American" or "the decline of US tennis" have limited meaning for him—much as Fish may go out of his way to play Davis Cup, or feel honored at selection to play for his country. Asked about Federer's remark, Fish said that the court plays much faster during the day, but is "extremely slow" at night.

"I haven't played at night here," he added. "I've requested to play during the day every single match, and thankfully they've given me that.  You know, (at night) the humidity drops a little bit, the temperature drops a little bit, and the balls get pretty big. It's frustrating, because you want some big tournaments to be on faster surfaces, and there just isn't any."

It's a pity about that. This match, for example, might have been even more entertaining had the potential payoff for attacking been larger, whatever the nationality of the players involved.

Maybe it's just me, but it seems a waste to see men as big, strong, and powerful as Delpo and Fish standing in the backcourt, taking huge cuts, only to see the ball come right back with impressive but never quite endgame pace. All either man can do under those conditions is go for the angle, refining the search with every subsequent shot. That's pretty much what this match, a great demonstration of ball striking by both men, became: a hunt for the angles, a battle of inside-out and inside-in forehands. To their credit, the men did venture forward now and then. Those interludes were exciting and refreshing, and we could have used more of them.

Delpo's achilles heel in the match was his failure to convert all but one of six break points. But Fish had even more break points (eight), and converted only two. The statistics are less a testament to incompetence than the serving prowess and go-for-broke shotmaking of both men. Fish hit 35 winners to 23 by Delpo, and made just three more unforced errors (28). Delpo's 62 percent first-serve percentage was just two points better than that of Fish, who generally served more effectively—10 aces to Delpo's six, 84 percent of first serve-points win, to 62 percent by Delpo.

Should Fish reach the semis (and on the three previous occasions when he made a Masters quarterfinal, he ended up playing the final), he'll rise to No. 12, leapfrogging ahead of Roddick (who's about to fall out of the Top 10). And if he wins here, he could crack the Top 10 himself. He's pretty ambivalent about becoming the highest-ranked American and suggested that it would be hard to feel like the best American player, given Roddick's record.

"I mean, his career, put on my career—he could put it on top of mine 15 times. I mean, he's won so many more matches, so many more tournaments, you know, so many more Davis Cup matches. So I don't think I would ever feel like the No. 1, even though, you know, if I were to win tomorrow the number next to my name would be smaller than his."

So the rejuvenation of Mardy Fish turns out to be a continuing story, despite the toll take by those thyroid-related problems that impaired Fish's performance earlier this year. I'd be tempted to say that this is a good thing for American tennis, but i'm not sure that would be at all meaningful.

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