Atlanta in July, and it feels like the hottest place on Earth. A veritable American tennis festival is at hand, with every relevant player in the draw except the most heralded of them all, Andy Roddick. Strangely, it doesn't matter. Roddick's reputation is well established. This is about legitimacy, points to prove, players doomed and on the rise with the U.S. Open looming in the distance.
Donald Young is out for his first-round match against Michael Russell, and it seems a favorable setting for someone who lives in Atlanta and feels strongly about giving back to the community -- both on and off the court. But Young is the oldest 22-year-old in tennis. His career is lamentably spiked with temper tantrums, ill-conceived remarks and inexcusable losses. Here comes another one, 6-0, 6-3 to the 33-year-old journeyman. Young's ranking falls to 127. His chance to do anything at the Open, should he get into the draw: none.
A couple of old hands, James Blake and Robby Ginepri, are hanging around the draw. They'd be completely forgotten by now if they hadn't left such indelible memories in the past. Blake, one of the most engaging guys in any sport, gets a tough first-round draw in Ernests Gulbis, but he knows he'll win the mental game. The Latvian is now stamped as a rich kid with zero motivation: all talent and no heart. Blake's wizardry is on the wane, but he earns a three-set win on pure will power before arriving at the match he can't quite handle (John Isner, in three tough sets).
Ginepri gets a decent first-round win against the guy who used to be Tommy Haas, but for a 28-year-old player coming back from virtual oblivion, a week in steamy Atlanta isn't destined to last very long. Ginepri goes down to Gilles Muller, 6-2 in the third. Meanwhile, we've already said farewell to Alex Bogomolov (28 years old but in career resurrection) and Ryan Sweeting (impressive clay-court title in Houston), each a one-and-done.
The crowd favorite, by a longshot, is the big-hitting Isner, the four-year All-American from Georgia who has always described nearby Athens as "the best place I've ever lived." His legendary college coach, Dan Magill, is in the stands, along with plenty of friends and family. It's a big opportunity for Isner, so clearly flawed but a tremendous hard-court threat with that punishing serve.
For the moment, though, this tournament is all about Mardy Fish and Ryan Harrison. They'll play each other for the first time in the semifinals, and it's a match carrying significant meaning. As most tennis fans know by now, Harrison has the look and the desire of a winner. He's a solid, no-nonsense athlete who loves a good scrap, and if his temper strays out of control sometimes, who cares? You love to see that fire. It won't ever be seen in Isner, Sam Querrey or so many fringe prospects in the U.S. development programs.
In a rich man's sport, Harrison plays like a guy from the back streets, perhaps a football cornerback at heart. But in terms of pure tennis, Fish is the real athlete in this matchup. While Harrison has no major strengths beyond his serve and forehand, Fish is an all-court guy with a tremendous backhand, exceptional touch at the net and more than enough power. His problem, traditionally, has been discipline. For years, he loved the pro-tennis lifestyle as much as the conditioning, appearing quite satisfied with the glamour and the exposure and the realization that he wouldn't fulfill his potential.
And yet, behold the transformation: At 29, slimmed-down and a fanatic in his diet and fitness regimen, Fish is taking one last shot at the top. He's in fantastic shape, ready to play all day in any conditions. And he's about to school young Harrison. He wins all the backhand exchanges, comes in behind first serves at all the right times, charges the net and volleys with conviction.
Remember that Harrison has had an impressive tournament so far, dispatching the always-dangerous Xavier Malisse and exchanging a few nasty words with the Belgian at one point. Harrison looks extremely comfortable against baseliners, figuring he can play that game with just about anyone (now ranked 94th, he has joined Australia's Bernard Tomic as the only teenagers in the top 100). In Fish, however, he encounters a puzzle. At times, even Fish seems unsure of his strategy -- but the variety works beautifully against the 19-year-old kid. Lessons learned for Harrison, and a rightful place in the final -- against Isner -- for Fish.
As we assess the U.S. men's prospects for the future, it's important to remember that Isner is no kid. He's 26 years old, and what we see is what we'll always get: a guy without much of a backhand or return game, playing strictly to hold serve and get into tiebreakers. I find it a crashing bore, but Isner has his supporters among the elite of tennis journalism, aesthetics included. He's a competitor and a fine fellow, for certain. And with the home crowd behind him, he wins the first set, reaches the beloved tiebreaker in the second, and seems to have it in hand at 5-1.
Later, Fish will say he was "lucky" to pull out this match, but there was no luck involved. If you're down 5-1 in a tiebreaker and Isner gets his first serve in, it's magnificent skill to send a forehand return deep to the baseline, where Isner shanks a forehand wide. It's no accident that you display superior skills to Isner's in fighting off two match points (at 6-4 and 6-5), or that you go ahead 7-6 on a shot beyond Isner's comprehension: rushing to the net for a gorgeous backhand touch volley winner.
There's no luck in the equation when you don't merely lose 30 pounds in your new life, but you bypass your natural instinct ("Two more cakes, please") and keep that weight off as the months grind on. And there's especially no luck involved when your spirit is crushed at the Davis Cup, after that brutal loss to David Ferrer in the crucial fourth rubber, and you come back this strong, this soon.
The third set is a formality. Isner is seen with his hands on his knees, physically spent. He knows not only that he's tired, but that Fish is in better shape and a superior player. "The goal this summer is to do better than last summer," Fish said after his 3-6, 7-6 (6), 6-2 win. "And last summer was the best I've ever had. I want to keep doing things I've never done, and today [defending a title] was one of them."
As the sun-baked Atlanta tournament shuts down, you remember once again that the right people tend to win in tennis, that the scouting reports are so often accurate, that the most grandiose statements carry the ring of justice. Whatever Roddick is planning for the U.S. Open, Mardy Fish is the No. 1 player in American tennis, building evidence as he goes.