Budding rivalry fun for friends Fish, Roddick
Before Pete Sampras retired in 2002 after winning the U.S. Open, most tournament directors used to salivate at the thought of a potential All-American final pitting gritty baseliner Andre Agassi against the smooth serve-and-volleying Sampras.
You could always count on the longtime rivals for a riveting match that would easily be a sellout.
Though not at the same level, every time two young American friends, Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish, are on opposite sides of the net, something special happens.
"I don't know for some reason we've always had tough close matches every time we played," Fish said. "I don't know if we know each other's game inside out."
Fish and Roddick staged a classic battle in the finals of last year's $2.45 million Western & Southern Financial Group Masters that starts Monday in Mason, Ohio.
Roddick topped Fish, 4-6, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4), giving tournament director Bruce Flory something to smile about.
"All things being equal, people like people from their own country, someone to root for," Flory said. "If you have someone to other than Andy to root for, it's certainly great for tennis in the U.S."
Roddick, the No. 2 seed, and Fish are both back this year. They will have some tough competition as the top 50 players in the ATP Tour rankings race are entered including 12th-seed Andre Agassi, who plays Fish in the first round, and No. 1 seed Roger Federer, who faces Dominik Hrbaty in the first round.
Americans Todd Martin and James Blake and Australian Mark Philippoussis were the only three players of note to withdraw from the event.
Wildcards for the qualifying rounds that started this morning were given to Ohio State All-American Jeremy Wurtzman, 15-year-old American phenom Donald Young and French Open junior finalist Alex Kuznetsov.
For Fish, playing in the final last year was rewarding because he got to face his good buddy while proving that he could play with the best on a grand stage.
"It was a storybook tournament for me playing Andy in the finals in such a big tournament," Fish said. "It kind of catapulted me and got people to know my name and to see that I can play a little tennis.
"Playing in the finals of Cincinnati was very special for both of us."
That week in the Queen's City Fish did more than just a little to solidify his position as a rising young American.
He reached three finals last year, won the first singles title of his career and finished the season ranked a career-high No. 20.
"I served really well last year and it seems like some of the tournaments where I madeit to the finals or won the tournament I played well," Fish said.
And although Roddick has a 3-1 edge against Fish, he has never gone down without a struggle.
In their latest encounter, Roddick eked out a 6-7 (13), 4-6 in the finals at San Jose earlier this season.
Their personal relationship tends to add to the intrigue of this budding rivalry. During their senior year in high school, the two attended Boca Prep (Boca Raton, Fla.) and Fish lived with Roddick's family.
"Growing up with him, living with him I realize his goals and our goals are the same," Fish said. "To see him achieving most of his goals, already, being No. 1 and playing Davis Cup, both of us playing Davis Cup was one of the most exciting things for me.
"It's hard to play him period just because he's an unbelievable tennis player."
Fish has participated in Davis Cup three times and will represent the U.S. at the Olympics in August. Representing his country is an honor he takes very seriously.
He once said that it would mean more to him to win an Olympic gold medal than to win a Grand Slam, but recently amended that statement.
"That's going to be special, to be able to walk out in the opening ceremonies, it's going to be great," Fish said. "You can't really go wrong with either one (winning a Slam or gold medal)."
A strained lower back prevented Fish from competing in the Tennis Masters Canada tournament that wraps up Sunday. But it would take a lot more than that to stop him from returning to Cincinnati, a place he enjoys visiting.
Fish said he would throw out the first pitch during the Reds game Sunday.
"I'm looking forward to getting back out there and playing Cincinnati, a tournament I love, one of my favorites," Fish said.