There was bound to be testiness out on a hot Grandstand court today in Key Biscayne. Mardy Fish couldn’t have been happy there; again the top-ranked American had been shunted off the big stadium in his native land. And his opponent this day, Nicolas Almagro of Spain, has been known to get under people’s skin, with his sporadic grunting and sporadic shots fired in their direction. A couple of months ago, the man who beat Almagro at the Australian Open, Tomas Berdych, wouldn’t even shake his hand.
But for a good set and a half today, there was no tension at all, and not much competition. Fish, who seems to have put his dismal start to 2012 behind him in Miami, was in total control. He won the first set 6-3 and went up 4-2 in the second. But even that scoreline made it sound closer than it was. Deep into the second set, Fish still hadn't lost a point on which he’d made his first serve. The American controlled the action from forecourt and backcourt.
If all that seemed a little too easy for a match between two guys in the Top 12, it was. Almagro came to life at 2-4 in the second, winning three straight games and burning Fish with brilliant backhand winners along the way. He also brought out the testiness we’d been waiting for. At game point at 4-4, Almagro stopped a rally and challenged a call on his baseline. So confident was he of his challenge that he strode all the way to the other side of the net for the changeover. You knew, at that point, that he was going to be wrong. He was. But credit Almagro, despite his disbelief, for walking back, winning the next two points to hold, and a few minutes later ripping through Fish 7-2 in the tiebreaker to even a match that had looked to be all but over.
Now it was Fish’s turn to get testy. After one of Fish's volley misses, Almagro growled in celebration; Fish shot him a look and growled right back. Temperatures were starting to rise, and it appeared that Fish would be the one to boil over. He struggled with errors and began to flail on defense. In each of his first three service games of the third set, he was forced to stave off a break point. He smacked the court with his racquet and even took a swipe at his shoes.
But staving off those break points was the key. It not only kept Fish even on the scoreboard, it made Almagro think about opportunities he’d blown—the Spaniard missed an easy backhand on his first break chance. At 3-4, it all caught up with him. Up love-30 on Almagro’s serve, Fish slid a silky backhand down the line for a winner for triple break point. At 30-40, Almagro netted an easy forehand to give Fish a 5-3 lead.
Some big serves, big forehands, and a love hold later, Fish had a 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-3 win and was into the quarters, where he awaits the winner of Andy Roddick and Juan Monaco. It’s the first positive result Fish has had this season outside of Davis Cup; maybe his bottoming-out press conference two weeks ago in Indian Wells did him some good, got some expectations off of his back. At each turn, his win today brought us the unexpected, and that stayed true even at the handshake. After looking like they might get into it on this hot day, Fish and Almagro gave each other a hug instead. “Good battle,” Fish told him.