It wasn’t Mardy Fish’s heart that let him down today at Indian Wells; it was his serve, with considerable help from the explosive talents of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who was frequently outplayed despite winning in straight sets, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (0).
All in all, though, Fish must be satisfied with the general level of his game and fitness, playing in just his second match since last year’s U.S. Open. He was sidelined (for the second time in the same year) by complications related to a heart condition that was first diagnosed last spring, at which time required a “cardiac catheter ablation” procedure.
Had this been any lesser a ball striker than Tsonga, the No. 8 seed in the tournament, Fish may have punched through to the fourth round on a day when his picture-perfect backhand dazzled, and even that once-dodgy forehand consistently found its mark for most of the contest. More significant, Fish played with a measure of assurance and command that was striking, given all the time he’s missed—and the fact that he was pushed to 6-4 in-the-third by a qualifier (Bobby Reynolds) in his first match in the desert.
But this was Tsonga, who may be the most dangerous if not the most intense and combative player in the upper echelon of the ATP. Tennis Channel commentator Justin Gimelstob was right on the mark when he said, after the first eight games: “This is the highest level of play we’ve seen from both men in any match in the tournament so far.”
Indeed. Both players set forth blasting the ball off both wings, showing no reluctance to swing for winners or back up their atomic groundstrokes with forays to the net. Tsonga seemed to throw his entire, considerable weight (200-plus lbs.) into each shot, while Fish adeptly stretched the court and kept the big man on the run. But the big difference was Tsonga’s consistent ability to raise his game when it most counted. Fish had four break points in the early going, but Tsonga asked too much of him each time.
As is often the case, escaping those early dangers boosted Tsonga’s confidence, and by the 10th game (all on serve thus far) he began to turn the tide. He held the 10th and 12th games with ease to force the tiebreaker without having earned a single break point against Fish’s serve.
But as sharp as Fish was in the rallies, his low first-serve conversion percentage was a bad omen. His rate in that first set was 43 percent, and it was just three percentage points better for the match. It cropped up to ruin him in the tiebreaker. But it wasn’t like Tsonga was giving a serving clinic, either. My notes say that of the first nine points of the tiebreaker, eight were played following second serves.
Fish recorded the first mini-break at 3-all thanks to a sharp stab volley. But he gave the advantage right back when he flubbed a routine rally backhand off a Tsonga return of serve. Worse yet, Fish double-faulted the next point away, and Tsonga finished off the tiebreaker with a pair of smoking hot aces.
But Fish was undeterred. He broke Tsonga immediately to start the second set, and quickly rolled out to a 4-0 lead. It was just the kind of lapse that seems to play such a large role in Tsonga’s continuing struggle to improve his station in the game.
But give the mercurial Tsonga credit: Despite being down 0-4, he rolled out a big game for an easy hold, then earned back one of the breaks with a strong game for 2-4. He then fought off a break point, Fish’s eighth of the math, to hold, and bolted out to a 0-40 lead in Fish’s next service game. Fish wiped out two of those break points, but Tsonga converted the third when the American hit a forehand approach more or less down the middle—allowing the Frenchman to blast a cross-court forehand winner for the break that made it 4-all.
Fish roared back, breaking Tsonga in the next game, only to run out of steam. Tsonga broke him for the third time in the set with four straight points, most of them errors by Fish. Tsonga then held with ease, but Fish did as well in the next game to force the tiebreaker.
In the decisive game, Fish fell behind right away with a backhand error and a double fault, and the 3-0 lead allowed Tsonga to coast to the finish line without losing a point. Tsonga won’t be happy that he surrendered all those breaks, but he’ll take confidence from knowing that his ability to lift his game and wipe out a big deficit is intact.
And Fish has to be satisfied with the overall state of his game and fitness—although his serve needs a good talking to.