Tuesday July 27th, 2010

With the U.S. Open only a few weeks away, Mardy Fish might be the best tennis player in America -- a pretty sweet notion if you've been among his loyal fans all these years.

Otherwise, a question: Has it really come to that?

In essence, there's nothing new to report on the issue of U.S. men at the highest level. When Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi departed, it ended an unbroken run of high-stakes accomplishment dating back to Bill Tilden's time. We were left with Andy Roddick, still stuck on a single major title for his career, and a bunch of guys with little or no chance to get there.

American men's tennis is sort of a B-level affair now -- no disgrace, certainly, but nothing to be measured against Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Robin Soderling, Tomas Berdych and maybe two or three others (welcome back Juan Martin del Potro to that group if he doesn't rush his recovery from wrist surgery). Those are the first names that come to mind when something really important is at stake.

Roddick has reached the point where, in the opinion of John McEnroe, he'll have to get "lucky" to win another major. And who's to argue? Just when so many observers (including this column) gave him a real chance at Wimbledon, he lost to Yen-Hsun Lu and left the All England Club with his reputation in tatters. For John Isner and Sam Querrey, it's more a matter of time and development, two powerful young guys with eye-opening potential. Fish, who knocked off Roddick and Isner to win the title in Atlanta over the weekend, is the late-blooming wild card with more raw talent than any of them.

The good news is that all four men carry distinct storylines, making each a curiosity as the U.S. Open Series unfolds. Roddick has reached the stage of desperation if he wants to embellish his legacy. Querrey had the courage to admit his exasperation with the tour's heavy grind, quite nearly tanking his way out of the French Open so he could get back to the States for some time off, and his forthright manner made him an intriguing figure. Isner staged a gutty three-day effort in Atlanta to build on his Marathon Man reputation. Fish, 28, has been a lurking threat for years, but only now is he combining fitness and motivation into a deadly package.

Isner was the big story in Atlanta from the beginning, having starred at the University of Georgia (2004-07), and everyone wanted to see the man who needed three days, 183 games and about a million punishing serves to dispatch Nicolas Mahut in that otherworldly Wimbledon match. On Friday, in searing temperatures Isner described as "brutal," he got past Michael Russell to earn a semifinal berth the following day against Kevin Anderson, a South African and former collegiate rival (Illinois).

The weather had become even more oppressive -- an on-court thermometer read 147 degrees -- and Isner survived a discouraging second set to win, 6-3, 6-7(7), 6-3, over some two-and-a-half hours. But he didn't stop there. Isner also played doubles that day, as if to prove that he's a long-haul guy in any city, any day, under any circumstances.

Fish, meanwhile, was taking out Roddick, 7-6(5), 6-3, in the best possible showcase for his newfound desire. If you find it absurd to anoint Fish as America's No. 1 on the basis of a single tournament, you're right. Roddick isn't coming off that throne just yet. But Roddick, more than anyone, knows that Fish is one hell of an athlete. The two are best friends, having trained together routinely over the years, and Fish lived with the Roddick family in 1999 while he was finishing high school.

"We were more like brothers that year," Fish recalled, and Roddick has often said that in terms of all-around ability, Fish has the edge on the strength of his big serves, adroit net game and world-class backhand. At Wimbledon in 2003, Fish was the only player to win a set against Roger Federer. Two years later, he needed two wrist operations and fell to No. 341 in the world, but when he regained full form and routed Federer 6-3, 6-2 at the 2008 Indian Wells event, Federer said, "We all know how good Mardy can be. On days like this, he's really impossible to beat."

It took an episode of knee surgery, last year, to make Fish realize he was running out of time. Through most of his career, he seemed content to have a big game and a lifestyle to match, thoroughly enjoying the exotic side of being a professional tennis player. If you hadn't seen him in a while, you may not have recognized him in Atlanta, a full 30 pounds lighter in the wake of a strict diet and training regimen.

"Losing all that weight was really hard," he said. "I felt like I was starving myself. If it was easy, everyone would do it."

Roddick had to be stunned by the sight of his old friend in such classic form, and when the match was over, he told Fish at the net, "I know how hard you've worked, so enjoy it."

So it was on to the Sunday final, and Isner couldn't have had much left. Fish was the quicker, more opportunistic player through most of the day, and now the courtside temperature was up to 152 degrees. Isner must have taken something away from that Wimbledon match, a sense that he can summon bursts of energy from the depths of exhaustion, for he came out firing. He mixed in some changes of pace with his thunderous serves and massive forehands, making for a titanic battle, and he won the first set. Fish reversed the momentum with a key service break at the end of the second set, but it took all of his guile and conditioning to prevail, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6(4). "It's as good as I've ever been," Fish said afterward.

You can't say that about American men's tennis. You wouldn't dare. Just pay attention to what looks to be a four-man assault on the U.S. Open. They've all given us reason to care.

* * * * *

It has been discouraging to witness the fading influence of collegiate tennis. For my money, that's a major highlight of Isner's resume: the fact that he spent four years at Georgia, leading the Bulldogs to the 2007 NCAA title as a senior. Only thereafter did he join the tour, and a lot of insiders -- including McEnroe -- feel that he gained invaluable big-match experience. As Isner said recently, "In college, I was in a lot of situations where the match came down to me, and everything was riding on it."

The more typical modern-day player is Querrey, who was offered a scholarship at USC but turned it down to pursue a pro career. Until Isner became known as a threat on tour, there hadn't been a big name on the list of NCAA singles champions since Kevin Curren (Texas) in 1979.

I'm sure Bud Collins and other seasoned journalists long for the days when the top American players were fully grown men with a rich collegiate experience in their wake. Going back to 1940, the list of NCAA champions included Ted Schroeder (Stanford), Pancho Segura (Miami), Tony Trabert (Cincinnati), Barry MacKay (Michigan), and that golden period in Southern California between 1956 and 1971, when USC produced Alex Olmedo, Rafael Osuna, Dennis Ralston, Stan Smith and Bob Lutz, while UCLA countered with Arthur Ashe, Charlie Pasarell and Jimmy Connors.

It's sad to think that the last man to win both an NCAA championship and a Grand Slam singles title was McEnroe, who spent just one year (1978) at Stanford, or that Barbara Jordan was the last Grand Slam women's champion ('79 Australian) to have attended college before turning pro. Something's wrong, even at the highest level of sports, when college is viewed as a pointless exercise.

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