Mardy Fish fends off first-round upset

Updated: September 1, 2010, 11:57 AM ET
By LZ Granderson |

NEW YORK -- In the third set, down 5-4 and engaged in a tense point at deuce, No. 19 Mardy Fish dumped a moderately easy backhand into the net. Immediately after the error, he whacked his racket on the court so hard the crowd gasped. Fish looked up somewhat embarrassed. Exactly why, I'm not sure. It could've been his unsportsmanlike show of emotion. Or the fact that -- after pasting his opponent, No. 82 Jan Hajek, 6-0 in the first -- he suddenly found himself in an unlikely dogfight, down a set against the hard-hitting Czech.

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Coming into the match, Fish was riding a 16-2 summer record and popped up on a number of analysts' picks as a dark horse who could go deep into the tournament. Now the partisan crowd was just hoping the American would make it deep into the match as Hajek punished Fish with one deep flat groundstroke after another, all of which seemed to find the line -- and Fish's buttons.

Then the Minnesota native ran off 11 straight games, highlighted by Fish winning a point that saw him fight off two Hajek overhead smashes and ended with the Czech leaning against the IBM speedometer trying to catch his breath -- and game. At the 2:23 mark, he called for medical attention, which seemed to be more gamesmanship than a necessity. Didn't matter. The diversion didn't derail Fish -- not in the match (which he won 6-0, 3-6, 4-6, 6-0, 6-1) and more importantly not in the final Grand Slam of the year. With No. 16 Marcos Baghdatis -- another boy of summer picked to go deep at Flushing Meadows -- bounced in his opening round against Arnaud Clement, it was beginning to appear as if all that great tennis played by the lower seeds was for naught. But with Hajek losing steam, Fish was able to feed off the crowd's energy and the 28-year-old kept his hopes for an Open title alive.

Now, there are two ways to look at this unexpected challenge: Either Fish is vulnerable to a hard-hitting grinder who can possibly hit through him, or he just showed everyone in the draw that not only is he more fit physically -- he has dropped more than 30 pounds since a year ago -- but mentally, as well, as he claimed his sixth come-from-behind win in his past 19 matches. Either way, both improvements were on display Tuesday, and the nervous crowd was happy to see it.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to He can be reached at

LZ Granderson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine