Fooling Everyone But Himself

Monday, March 26, 2012 /by

by Pete Bodo

MIAMI—If you watch many Pic tennis matches, it gets to the point where you seldom see a truly new or different shot.

The "tweener?" Bores me to tears. To see even Mr. All-Time Grand Slam Singles Champ scampering around just to get in position to hit the most predictably unpredictable trick in tennis borders on sacrilege. 

When players hit the vast majority of those between-the-legs, back-to-the-net shots, they're basically saying, "I'm more interested in looking cool than winning the point."

Not a grand ambition in a score-based game.

The bunny-hop backhand? If it were up to me, a designated fan would be awarded a paintball gun at every match, and if he or she managed to hit the player in butt, mid-hop, I’d give him one of those warehoused piratas Nike has stashed somewhere.

But today, I saw a truly novel shot. It was hit by Mardy Fish, the No. 8 seed here at the Sony Ericsson Open, in the third game of his third-round match with Kevin Anderson. At the time, Fish led 6-4, 1-1, with Anderson serving and down 15-30.

In the ensuing point, Anderson hit an approach shot deep to Fish’s backhand and barreled toward the net. The obvious shot for Fish was a needle-threading down-the-line backhand. Instead, he held off a moment, then sort of yanked the ball back cross-court.

So far, so good—cross-court passes are less risky because the pass over the lowest point of the net.

However, Fish also took a bit off the shot and used his wrist in a way that made the ball dip sharply at an acute angle. The winner just wasn’t there—not against a guy who stands 6-foot-8 and was closing, fast.

What the shot did, though, was force Anderson to hit an awkward half-volley while moving forward and practically atop the net—and there’s a lot of Kevin for Anderson to slow down and move down into a good position to hit a touch half-volley (the only way he could have sent the ball back over the net from where he met it). 

Now, I’m not stupid enough to think that Fish had this exact sequence of cause-and-effect in mind when he produced this shot. If anything, it represented instinct overriding training. But it's a shot only for a player like Fish, who has soft hands, a nice touch, and a creative sensibility.

That touch hasn’t been in great evidence this year, one in which Fish hadn’t won two completed matches in a row until today. He went on to break Anderson in the game I just cited, and rolled to a surprisingly routine 6-4, 6-3 win. It was his second win here, which put him in the fourth round.

You have to understand how deep into the slough of despond Fish had drifted in recent weeks to appreciate what this win did for him. About two weeks ago in Indian Wells, he lost his first match to ATP No. 91 Matthew Ebden. After that match, he admitted:

“You know, you've got to obviously stay positive. There's just no way around it. You have to look at the fact that I have worked my butt off to be where I am right now and be eight in the world and, you know, we've put in a lot of sweat and a lot of work to be here. So just the start of the year is not going to take that away, but I certainly would have liked to have started better.”

But the element that really seemed to unnerve Fish was the fear that he was backsliding toward a version of his self that was overweight, underachieving, and content in his discontent. That was the identity he vanquished and kept at bay all of last year, and it's apparently the one that has recently been stirring again.

As Fish said at Indian Wells, “Since my knee surgery and since my weight loss, I could always fall back on the fact that I tried as hard as I could. I wanted to win every single time I stepped out on the court. I tried everything possible, you know, whether it's trying to hit a ball at the other guy or yelling at somebody or something just to try to get myself fired up and in a position to try to win. Because that's the bottom line; that's what you want to do. . . I think I've lost that a little bit.”

Two, three years ago, Fish probably wouldn’t have been honest enough with himself to acknowledge that he was ducking out on that mandate. But one great dividend of his recent transformation has been that he’ll never be able to fool himself in that regard again, and that's probably worth a lot to him in these hard times.

Fish still has a talent for fooling opponents with trick shots, but it appears that he's done fooling himself.

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