US Open Day Eight

Roger Federer in a press conference

Roger Federer in a press conference

NEW YORK – Was it a birthday present for his father? Maybe a wedding gift for the lady he will marry later this month? Both of them were hanging on Mardy Fish’s every move below in the paved pit called Arthur Ashe Stadium.

More likely it was a “Happy Quarter-finals to Me!” party that he was throwing for himself at the sunny, breezy US Open yesterday. Mardy Fish is an amiable 26-year-old Floridian whose name comes up now and then, and you think he’s going to take off. But he doesn ‘t. He beat Roger Federer at Indian Wells and reached the final in March, and has been given Davis Cup chances that failed. Three years ago he tumbled to No. 227 – “I just couldn’t play” — but he had been a silver medalist at the 2004 Olympics.


At Flushing Meadow, which he considers “the biggest event in tennis,” Mardy might have done better selling programs for Josh Zimman, the publisher. In seven previous Opens he’d never gone beyond the second round, lost three times in the first.

“I was desperate to do well,” he concedes. You don’t hear many guys admitting desperation.

It turned out the fall guy for this desperation was one of the great characters in the game, an acrobatic Frenchman with a super-pliable 6-foot-4 body that twists in many directions: Gael Monfils. Monfils was a semifinalist at the French where he gave Federer a hard time. A swift baseliner careening, diving for balls, even on the asphalt – “That is the way I play, go for everything” – he is a marvelous figure topped by a red-tinted fuzzywuzzy coiffure. His facial expressions twist and radiate various forms of joy and disappointment.

Mostly it was disappointment because Mardy Fish had gone retro in winning, 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 in two hours. Hard to believe in this day of the practically extinct volley, but Mardy was attacking the net as though he were digging for gold (and there was some gold involved, $ 160,000, probably enough for

a wedding cake).

Serve-and-volley? Who did he think he was – Rod Laver…Billie Jean King…John McEnroe…Pete Sampras?

Rafael Nadal on the Arthur Ashe Stadium

Rafael Nadal on the Arthur Ashe Stadium

Well, it wasn’t a bad imitation of the archaic style that used to win championships around here before the big rackets and the murderous topspinning strings made net-rushing as inviting as jaywalking on Route 128 at rush hour.

Nevertheless, Fish is an exceptional volleyer, “one of the best things about my game. I’m never going to beat Monfils, who gives people fits, from the baseline, or outlast him. So,” Marty said, “I went into a constant stay-aggressive kind of mentality. That’s what I was telling myself non-stop.”

But “it wasn’t kamikaze stuff, going in on everything. I had to pick the right spots.” And pick them he did. He served-and-volleyed, or made forehand advances 69 times, scoring 45 points.

Looking older than his 26 years in scruffy beard and unruly head-banded sandy hair, he scooped volleys off his shoe tops and reached wide for them. Monfils was running down a lot of balls, even seemingly perfect volleys. He must wear out dozens of pairs of sneakers, actually sliding on the pavement as though he were on his native clay.

“It’s my gift, balance,” said Gael, ranked No. 32, who also said, “I wasn’t here. It wasn’t my day.”

But it was Mardy’s, coming on top of his terrific Saturday night win over close friend, No. 9 James Blake, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4). It could have been a defining moment. Mardy served for it at 5-4 in the third and blew it. “Nerves got me.” Then he fell behind, 2-4 in the tie-breaker — and ran the last five points. “At 2-4 I thought that wasn’t going to be my set,” he laughed.

Luxuriating momentarily in Open life beyond the second round, Mardy knows that next he must try to climb an Everest in sneakers named Nadal.

“Absolutely, absolutely I’m looking forward. I feel like a guy with my style is someone he doesn’t want to see. You’ve got to be able to finish points quickly. Rafa wants to keep the points as long as possible, and run guys down, kind of body blow after body blow.”

Bud chatting with stilt walker

Bud chatting with stilt walker

OK, lets be realistic. Mardy, good to watch, will give it everything he’s got, and may be on the brink of crashing the top 20 (he’s No. 35). He may add to the two titles he’s won in eight years. But he will do well to snatch a set from Nadal as the brightest young American, 20-year-old Sam Querrey did yesterday, bold and cool in standing up to Senor Numero Uno for 3 ¼ hours, 6-2, 5-7, 7-6 (7-2), 6-3.

The knock on Fish was that he wouldn’t work hard enough. But he looked as though he’d put in the labor, and I hope he can regain the touch he showed years ago in running neck and neck with his pal Andy Roddick.

Whatever, the victory was a neat birthday gift to papa, Tom Fish, and something for the trousseau of fiancée Stacey Gardner.

However, it was unhappy birthday to you, Gael Monfils. The soulful lad turned 22 Monday.

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