On the face of it, you might think that when Mardy Fish took a gander at the groupings for the ATP World Tour Finals, he gulped. Hard. There was his name, right up there with those of. . . Rafael Nadal. . . Roger Federer. . .Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. And his de facto "first-round" match in London will be on Sunday night, against Nadal. You know, the already iconic "King of Clay" (Fish's description), and presently the second-ranked player in the world.
Nadal has been cooling his jets for a month now, presumably just hanging out back home with friends and family in Mallorca, deep-sea fishing, golfing, practicing with Uncle Toni and plotting his revenge against Novak Djokovic and anyone else who might be in his way at the year-end championships. Meanwhile, Fish had to sweat out his place as the eighth and final (and most easily overtaken) qualifier for the ATP grand finale—an autumn slog that ended up with him suffering a hamstring injury that forced him to to retire in the third round of the last tournament of the year, the Paris Masters.
As Fish said of his draw and prospects via telephone from London this afternoon, "There aren't many holes in that draw—apart from me."
The self-deprecating humor was understandable, given that Fish is a combined 2-14 against the players he'll face in his group, and the fact that he's a 29-year-old veteran appearing in his first season-ending championships.
On the other hand. . .
Nadal will be fresh but certainly not in battle-hardened condition. Also, the former No. 1 and nemesis of Federer has yet to figure out the indoor hard-court game like he's pulled together his technique, tactics and strategy on outdoor hard courts. The only major hole in Nadal's resume to date is his failure to have won the year-end championships—the "fifth major" if you will—in four appearances (his match record is 8-8).
Fish, by contrast, likes hard courts best of all. And the more willing he'll be to take chances and break out that big serve and attacking game, the more the indoor environment will suit and help him. And let's face it, nobody is predicting that Fish will make a big impact on this tournament, so he can be totally relaxed and not have to sweat the small stuff, like having to beat a lowly qualifier in the second round of a big tournament in order to get in the hunt with the top contenders. Fish hasn't always been good at that "small stuff," or what you might call the due diligence required of a Top 10 player. So Fish could be dangerous, and at some level he knows it, despite his politic desire to shuffle his feet and drawl, Aw shucks, I'm just happy to be here. . .
When pressed, he amplified on some of those ideas today.
"I feel I match up better against Rafa than I do with Novak [Djokovic, who is in the other group and could not meet Fish until the semifinal stage]. Obviously, that's a pick-your-poison proposition, but I beat Rafa this summer, and I played a good first set against him in Tokyo. The match was maybe closer than the scores made it look."
True enough. Fish was winless against Nadal in six attempts until he tagged him this summer in the Cincinnati quarterfinals, 6-3, 6-4. And he gnawed away at Nadal in that first set of that semifinal in Tokyo, losing it 7-5, after which the wheels admittedly fell off. Psychologically, Fish has a right to feel like he's in with a chance, and he knows he'll have to be bold and opportunistic. Fish's other win against his group members was a triumph over Federer on the outdoor hard courts of Indian Wells, way back in 2008.
By qualifying, Fish made it 25 straight years that the U.S. has been represented in the year-end championships, and he feels good about that. Fish posted a career-high ranking of No. 7 this year, and he took charge and sustained his high level of play throughout the year—even as Andy Roddick, Fish's pal and the undisputed leader of their generation, struggled and faded. He has the right to view this tournament as a perk and to play as if he were celebrating his career year, as well as hoping to make a significant statement to end it. Mardy's in a good position to go fishing for glory.
Knowing that he could lose a match and still be in the tournament also ought to help keep Fish on an even keel. He didn't play in any of those woeful hybrid knockout/round-robin tournaments with which the ATP experimented a few years ago, but he said it was "definitely cool" to be part of this kind of shootout between the stars. "I know I'm guaranteed three matches, and that's great. But the fact that two of them are against two of the best players, ever, that is kind of daunting."
He added, "I'm taking the approach that I'm excited to be a part of this thing. Roger (Federer) won this five times—that's more time than I can imagine even getting into the event. But there's zero pressure on me. It's not out of the realm of possibility that I can get to the semis, maybe even further."
Let's not get carried away, Mardy. Just take it one superstar at a time.