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Tennis

Djokovic, Serena have mastered the mental game; more notebook

Sometimes you just know. It's a championship tennis match full of suspense, offering strong hints of an upset, but there's a point in which everyone in the stadium -- including both players -- understands a basic truth. It happened to Mardy Fish and Samantha Stosur over the weekend, and they should feel no shame.

Fish had a marvelous week in Montreal, grinding all the way to the final against Novak Djokovic. "It's important against a player like Mardy to hold your composure," Djokovic said before the match. "I know he's going to come to the net. I know he's going to take his chances. He's always played like that."

With the type of swashbuckling, all-court style that has made him not only the top American men's player but also the most watchable, Fish won the second set against a man trying to nail down the greatest single-season record in history. We had a match now, and they were on serve at 2-2 in the third.

Right then -- a telling stage, little room for error -- is when the mental game becomes such a critical factor. It probably crossed Fish's mind that this would be a titanic upset, making news around the world. He may have recalled being blown off the court by Djokovic, 6-3, 6-1, on another hard court (Miami) this year. Perhaps he considered neither of these things -- but he was definitely a different player as he served for that fifth game. He badly missed a forehand volley, then sailed consecutive forehands well long for 0-40. At break point, Djokovic tossed up an exceptional defensive backhand lob -- and Fish drilled an overhead into the net.

Broken at love. Match over. There were several games to play, but Fish had let this one get away, and he knew it.

As the Stosur-Serena Williams final unfolded in Toronto (and wasn't it odd to watch this Canadian event contested in two cities?), there was talk about Stosur's second serve, perhaps the best in the business. That certainly looked to be the case as the two fought to a 4-4 deadlock in the first set.

Now, though, the pressure would be on Stosur. She seemed to have the ninth game well in hand at 40-15, but as she struck a second serve on the ensuing point, Serena lashed a vicious forehand return, a cross-court winner that was stunning in its force and commitment. This was a champion stepping up her game -- a dynamic foreign to Stosur and most everyone else on tour. Before you knew it, Serena was coming in behind a down-the-line forehand to strike a volley winner that clinched the break.

Was there any doubt about the outcome right then? Serena opened the second set with another break, and it was a veritable coast to the finish line. Just for good measure, she punctuated her last service game with four aces. No. 31 in the world rankings and No. 1 for real.

• For years, observers predicted that Serena wouldn't be able to maintain a proper weight level as she got older. She willingly admitted that she doesn't have Venus' forever-slim frame, but rather a more hefty version that runs throughout her family. "Bootylicious," she always called herself, among countless other "booty" references. Well, she turns 30 next month, and while she's not the Serena of 1999, she's in fabulous shape. She has devoted considerable time to the fitness regimen of Mackie Shilstone, renowned for his work with athletes in many sports, and it's really paying off. How's this for a remarkable comment regarding her comeback? "I just decided if I could be fit, maybe that can be a new level in my game. I've always been a halfway decent player, but I thought, What haven't I been? I have never really been fit."

• How long did it take for Serena to restore her dominance after 11 months off the tour? "It trips me out that this is only my fourth tournament," she said. "I had to go out and meet people's expectations, just try to get there. Once I hit Stanford, I was there, man. My prayers were answered."

• As Djokovic celebrated his win, ESPN's Chris Fowler told his audience, "Another title -- and a history-making fifth Masters Shield in one year." True enough, but seriously, how many people have any idea what that means? The concept does date back some 20 years, under various headings, but if it didn't apply during the prime of Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe, how relevant can it be?

• I'm guessing "52" isn't McEnroe's favorite number. Shortly after celebrating that birthday in February, he embarrassingly sprained an ankle and had to retire during his much-anticipated exhibition against Ivan Lendl at Madison Square Garden in New York. Just the other day, facing Michael Chang in a Legends Cup match in Toronto, he collapsed to the ground with a hamstring injury and lay there for nearly 10 minutes before being helped off the court. I couldn't help but recall a classic wedding scene from an old Woody Allen movie (can't recall which one), in which a bit of festive dancing breaks out and some old-timer takes to the floor, performing the strenuous one-legged artistry of the Russian Cossack Dance. Suddenly, something pops. He freezes in terror. He's carried off the floor. Sometimes the mind is willing for aging athletes, but the body ... not so much.

• She's no Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who speaks through her wardrobe, but Andrea Petkovic is setting her own standard of eccentricity. She has developed a variety of post-victory dances (silly, but harmless), she has a knack for spontaneity (cleverly transferring her racket to clobber left-handed overheads), and she stunned everyone in the Carlsbad stands last week when she sprinted off the court, without a word, so she could vomit in private. In Toronto, wrote Cathal Kelly in The Star, "After an ill-timed net cord cost her the first set against [Agnieszka] Radwanska, she vented by running up and biting the net. Then she gave her racquet bag a good thrashing." Later, Petkovic revealed that she drifts between the "fire" of her Serbian heritage and the "calm" of her German nationality, adding that "McEnroe was one of my favorites. I really enjoyed his outbursts. When I watch tennis, I like to see some emotions."

• Once you've treated the world to a stunning victory over Maria Sharapova in the Wimbledon final, it's advisable to sustain at least some of that mystique. That was hardly the case for Petra Kvitova in Toronto, where she was crushed by Petkovic 6-1, 6-2 in just her second match since Wimbledon. Kvitova appeared flustered by the windy conditions and committed an alarming number of unforced errors in what Matt Cronin described as a "mental checkout." We'll see a more committed and match-tough Kvitova, I'd imagine, at the U.S. Open.

• What to make of Rafael Nadal's opening-match loss to the talented but streaky Ivan Dodig? It's probably wise to call it an aberration, especially with Juan Martin del Potro, Andy Murray, Caroline Wozniacki, Marion Bartoli, Li Na and Sharapova taking equally baffling losses in Canada. One nagging thought: After being physically and mentally dominated by Djokovic -- and freely admitting his anxiety -- Nadal has lost a bit of his vaunted confidence on big points. Then again, he hadn't played in more than a month heading into Montreal, and there's little on his mind beyond redemption in New York. It will be fascinating to watch.

• Nice to know that the WTA isn't turning a blind eye to the shrieking issue, because it's a major annoyance for fans around the world. In Toronto, CEO Stacey Allaster said "it's something we're looking at" and admitted, "It's very difficult to change the existing athletes, because this is how they've trained and prepared their entire lives." Which is why you bring down the hammer at the junior level. Any kid who insists on exceeding rational limits -- think Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka or Michelle Larcher de Brito -- simply gets thrown out of tennis. Come back when you respect the sport.

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