April 17, 2006, 1:05AM
U.S. MEN'S CLAY COURT CHAMPIONSHIPS
Fish lands a big one
Second career win boosts American's ranking from 212 to 121
By DALE ROBERTSON
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle
Mardy Fish might be the new king of American clay-court tennis, succeeding Andy Roddick, his childhood chum, at Westside Tennis Club on Easter Sunday, but it hasn't turned his head or changed his objectives for the long haul.
No way he is going to risk becoming a little fish in those big ponds across the pond this spring. Monte Carlo? Rome? Hamburg? Forget it. Roland Garros? Maybe. But, for now, Fish returns to the Challenger Circuit grind in Bermuda this week. He intends to play four of those minor-league events for the purpose of getting his ATP ranking back to where it will ensure him safe passage into the 128-man main draw at Wimbledon.
Fish bit off a big chunk of what he needed Sunday, beating Jurgen Melzer 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 to win the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships and climb, in one fell swoop, from No. 212 all the way to 121. His goal remains the same as it was when he arrived — to be no worse than No. 100 six weeks before Wimbledon.
"It's reachable now," Fish said after turning the tables on Melzer with nearly flawless serving over the final two sets. "I've got to forget about (what I've done) the last two weeks, bear down again and start over."
The 24-year-old American, whose only previous ATP title in seven finals came at Stockholm in 2003, was coming off a victory in the Tallahassee, Fla., Challenger, a hardcourts tournament. He had practiced for just an hour on Westside's red clay and almost was eliminated in the first round by Juan Monaco, the relentless River Oaks International runner-up, needing to win a tense third-set tiebreaker to advance.
But thereafter things nicely fell into place for him. He received a walkover when Rainer Schuettler, a former top-10 player, fell ill, he got to play Vince Spadea instead of Australian Open runner-up Marcos Baghdatis, who retired against Spadea with a backache, and then Tommy Haas had to quit in the semifinals because of a sore wrist after he conveniently had eliminated the defending champion Roddick.
Match turns in second set
In the Austrian Melzer, 24, Fish was facing someone who had won just a single ATP match in 2006 before finding his groove in Houston, profiting from a rash of upsets around him in the lower half of the draw. So when Fish called his week — good for all those pennies-from-heaven ranking points, never mind the $52,000 winner's check — an "incredible" one, he was hardly overstating the case.
Melzer seemed the stronger player at the outset, breaking Fish to take the first set, but the Texas heat and sunshine appeared to drain him just as Fish was finding his groove. A double fault cost Melzer a break point in the momentum-turning seventh game of the second set, and Fish seized the opportunity with a screaming backhand winner.
Hard work finally pays off
He broke Melzer twice in the third set — the fatal final one, at love, also included a double fault — while holding serve three times at love. A sloppily netted Melzer backhand volley ended the match, and Fish promptly flopped on his back, where he lay for several seconds, letting the realization of his unexpected triumph sink in.
But Fish is suffering no delusions of grandeur, and that's why he isn't going to spin his wheels attempting to qualify for the big European clay-court tournaments leading into Roland Garros. What he really wants is to do well enough at Wimbledon to be comfortably situated, rankings-wise, for his bread-and-butter hardcourts season that culminates with the U.S. Open.
Compared to the A-list dirt-ballers, none of whom played Houston, Fish remains a minnow. Rafael Nadal, he isn't.
"It's rewarding," he said, "to know a lot of hard work paid off for me on a surface that's not even close to my best."
After climbing into the top 20 two years ago and winning an Olympic silver medal at Athens, Fish's 2005 season turned into a disaster, wrecked by two wrist operations. But, during the periods when he was unable to play tennis, he focused on increasing his fitness. Once he got back on the court again, he was in the best shape of his career.
Melzer, who has played well enough in Houston to advance as far as the semis three times, had his best tournament, reaching the singles and doubles finals. But he wasn't in a celebratory mood late Sunday afternoon. He and countryman Julian Knowle also went down to defeat 5-7, 6-4, 10-5 in the latter, having let a 4-1 second-set lead get away.
Plus Melzer also had a terrible sunburn, the result of having to play three afternoon matches over the weekend.
"I'm very disappointed right now," he said. "It was not my day. I should be leaving with at least one championship."
U.S. Men's Clay Court Summary
Getting their act together
New Clay Courts champions Michael Kohlmann and Alexander Waske, who defeated Jurgen Melzer and Julian Knowle 5-7, 6-4 and 10-5 in the decisive super-tiebreaker, were playing only their fourth ATP doubles tournament together.
The unseeded Germans' best previous showing was the quarterfinals at Hamburg in 2004, where they were beaten by Bob and Mike Bryan. Here, they upset the top-seeded Bryans in the second round en route to the title. In the final, they had to rally from a 1-4 deficit in the second set.
Blake antes up for charity
In the final accounting, the tournament raised almost $140,000 for the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Westside Tennis Club raised $97,000 through special events; four M.D. Anderson nurses, who played more than 48 hours of doubles, generated another $15,000 through pledges; and James Blake guaranteed a minimum of $25,000.
But that means Blake had to go into his piggy bank to cover the check.
His plan going in was to donate all of his Houston prize money to the hospital in memory of his father Thomas, who died of stomach cancer in 2004. That could have been more than $60,000 for the singles and doubles titles.
But, coming in on the best roll of his career, he did not count on losing in the first round, which paid him only $3,650. Reaching the doubles semifinal with Mardy Fish was worth another $2,825 for a total of just $6,475. But Blake has made almost $500,000 this year, and his career earnings are approaching $3 million, so it's not like he will have to hock the Rolex.
River Oaks key for Melzer
Singles runner-up and doubles runner-up Jurgen Melzer credits his visit to the River Oaks International before the Clay Courts for getting him straightened out mentally after a dismal start to his year.
"It clicked for me at River Oaks," Melzer said. "I played Stefan Koubek, another Austrian, in the first round. I didn't want to lose that match. We're friends, but it's a battle. I did whatever I had to do to win.
"I realized you can win matches by fighting. You don't always have to play really good. ( Fernando) Vicente kicked me pretty good (in the second round), but still I know I'm on the way back.
"Then in my first match here, I'm 5-4 down to the guy ( Ivo Minar) serving for the set, so if I lose that set everything can turn out different."
Why had he been struggling, winning just one match on the tour before arriving in Houston?
"That's a good question," Melzer said. "I lost a couple of matches at the beginning and I lost my confidence, and then you ask yourself what's going on when you work your tail off in November and December and it's not paying off. You get a little frustrated."
Friends and neighbors
As fellow residents of the Hill Country west of Austin, Andy Roddick and Lance Armstrong have become good friends. Busy schedules prevent them from getting together often, but, when they can, they make the effort.
Roddick, 23, considers the now-retired seven-time Tour de France champion a great sounding board.
"I go to dinner with him when we're both in town," he said. "He's always a good guy to go to for advice. He's great. He always has an open ear, and I've been lucky enough to have people like him and Andre ( Agassi) to ask questions to. They've seen everything I've gone through and more, every situation. It's nice to be able to ask guys like that what their opinions are on things."
But Roddick doesn't go to Armstrong looking for sympathy, even if he has had a difficult start this year, thus far failing to win a tournament as he clings precariously to the No. 4 ranking.
"He'd say, 'OK, you've lost some tennis matches. Fine. I don't want to hear you cry,' " Roddick said. "It's tough to argue with him after everything he's been through."