Just like Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga before them, Rafael Nadal and Mardy Fish played out a seesaw match over three sets. The problem for the 16,500 spectators, however, was that this one took twice as long to reach its conclusionâ€”and the Sunday tube service back to London grinds to a halt at 11.15pm.
As many predicted, both Nadal and Fish looked match-rusty and edgy from the off. Since they had met one another in the semi-finals of Tokyo back at the start of October, both had encountered fitness problems, neither was competition sharp.
Nadal lost his second match in Shanghai and subsequently pulled out of the Paris Masters to recuperate for London.
Fish, building up a career-best season that took him into the top 10 for the first time, gave Nadal a run for his money in the Americanâ€™s first Wimbledon quarter-final, reached three US Open Series finals, winning Atlanta, and scored his first win over the Spaniard in Cincinnati.
But come the indoor season, disaster struck and he was forced to retire with hamstring injury in two straight tournaments: Basel and Paris.
Perhaps, therefore, expectations were not high for Fish against the most physically demanding of all players, and the first set did little to dispel the doubts.
Fish opened the servingâ€”though he was delayed for several minutes while Nadal had his fingers rebandaged after the warm-upâ€”and was immediately broken. The Americanâ€™s serve, such a vital part of his attacking serve-and-volley tactics, went absent without leave.
Nadal had another break point in the seventh game as Fish struggled to get any penetration with his ground-strokes or put-away volleys. The set was done and dusted, 6-2, with 17 unforced errors alongside Fishâ€™s name to just three winners.
But the second set opened very differently, not least because Fish found his first 130mph-plus serve and closed the game with an ace. His confidence clearly boosted, Fish then went hell-for-leather at Nadalâ€™s serve, finding the line three times and sealing the break with a shot that would become a rich source of points during the rest of the matchâ€”a short, soft, angled volley.
Nadal could not close the gap on a Fish whose serve level rose to 66 percent, dropping just three points on his first serve. Indeed, Fish twice more had chances to break Nadal, but failedâ€”he would go on to convert only three break points out of 11 chances. He nevertheless levelled the match, 6-3, with his signature economic backhand volley. So while the errors continued to flow, they were at least matched by winnersâ€”especially from the net.
That set had taken twice as long as the firstâ€”almost an hourâ€”and there was still more delay as Nadal disappeared from the court at 2-0 up in the third set, leaving Fish, arms akimbo, looking more than a little irritated.
Afterwards, however, he quickly thwarted any suggestion of being upset. â€œI just assumed he wasnâ€™t feeling well. I have a ton of respect for him. Willing to wait. He wins more Grand Slams than Iâ€™ve won tournaments so Iâ€™m willing to wait for him as long as he wants.â€
Nadal, too, was irritated by some unknown factor, gesticulating angrily at his box at the change of ends. Perhaps he was trying to explain the reason why he had not waited, as is usual, for the change of ends.
He certainly wanted to make it clear afterwards. â€œI told the umpire that I needed the toilet. He told me I had to go before my serve. I said â€˜Going to be crazy if I go at 2-0,â€™ but he told me thatâ€™s better.â€
The disturbance, however, seemed to give Fish more edge, and he took three games on the bounce, only to concede a break back to love with a loose sixth game, 3-3. Fish had a chance to break again in the seventh and failed, then went on to save two break points, as the men edged, minute by slow minute, to a tie-break.
With the clock ticking towards 11.30pm, many were forced to miss the denouement. Nadal, as he has now done 19 times out of 27, won the tie-break but was left to ponder on whether such a performance can beat his next opponent, Federer. But the Spaniard, when asked about his health, was quick to make a distinction between the now and the future:
â€œI feel not very well now, I really need to come back to the hotel to rest a little bit because I played one hour suffering a lot, but no, I am not [worried about my next match]. I am worried about getting better for the practice tomorrow!â€
Whatever his state of health, the Spaniard will need to reverse his winner-to-unforced-error ratio of 18 to 27, but so will Fish when he meets Tsonga.
Fifty errors is a worry, but at least the man who turns 30 next week seems to have put his injury worries behind him. â€œI hadnâ€™t practised that much at all with my leg but physically I felt pretty good.â€
And he certainly appeared to move well, his serve and volley started to kick in and he lasted through three hours against Nadal. That in itself has to be a good sign.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge