Wildfish and William Tell

Roger Federer (L) of Switzerland shakes hands with Mardy Fish of the U.S. after defeating him in their championship match at the Cincinnati Masters tennis tournament in Cincinnati, Ohio, August 22, 2010. REUTERS/John Sommers II (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT TENNIS)

I’m not exactly sure how it is that Mardy Fish needed a wild card to get into Cincinnati after reaching three finals this year and winning two of them, but I’m pretty sure Roger Federer is not William Tell.

If you wander over to this video on youtube you’ll see the latest Gillette ad featuring the ever suave and sociable Roger. It’s a little reality based episode in which Roger appears to be taking a break from an ad shoot to show the director his own version of Tiger Woods’s trick shot.

Tiger’s trick shot consisted of bouncing a golf ball on his sand wedge a few times then flipping it up in the air and hitting a drive on the fly. Tiger is out of favor now so it’s Roger’s turn and Gillette has chosen an appropriate reference for the Swiss tennis player.

The director balances a bottle on his head and Roger hits a serve that sends the ball flying a la William Tell – the Swiss patriotic hero. In the 1300s Tell refused to bow to the hat of an invading Austrian tyrant and was forced to shoot an apple off the top of his son’s head with his crossbow or be executed along with his son. Tell eventually killed the tyrant and precipitated a rebellion that led to the Swiss Federation.

However, while Tiger’s shot was real, Roger’s is fake as you can see here (go to the 2:30 mark). That’s only one of the reasons I miss Tiger. I only watch golf when he plays and I knew I’d always see something amazing. Currently, though, he’s in a liminal state and we’ll have to wait until he passes through it before we’ll see amazing things again. I’m sure that’s a strange new word to most of you, at least it was to me.

Someone in a liminal state is going through a transition and Tiger is going through the huge transition of addiction recovery. There are many, many other transitions we go through and one of them is death – both big deaths such as the end of our lives and little deaths such as the end of a phase in our life.

When Mardy Fish faced knee surgery this time last year I’m pretty sure he was face to face with one of those “end of life phase” deaths. He was 27 years old and ranked #48 at the time. I’d say 27 years is about 60 in non-athlete years. The athlete has been cruising along making a living and doing okay then all of a sudden he has knee surgery and he starts calculating how many years he has left. At this point he can either start thinking about his next career or get his butt in gear.

Fish got his butt in gear. He asked his physiotherapist to move in with him, hired a cook, and made the most of his three month surgery recovery. He’s now 30lbs/14kg lighter and a lot more mobile. The specter of career mortality will do that to you.

That is why Fish had three finals and two titles this year and that is how we found Fish facing Roger in the final in Cincinnati today. Fish is never going to beat Roger without a big first serve percentage I said to myself as Fish served up a double fault in his second service game. While that’s probably true, maybe it’s a bit less true because Fish can now do marathons. That second service game lasted almost 14 minutes and featured two double faults and a missed putaway and Fish still managed to win it.

I always thought Fish was doomed to live out his career as a serial streaker because that’s what you get when you go for a winner on every other shot – streaky play. I was wrong. He was an overweight out of shape aggressive player. The streakiness is still there but now there’s foot speed to run down enough shots to ameliorate the streakiness with a few saves here and there. And that makes a big difference in matches where the point differential can be a few shots. And the first set turned on a few shots.

Roger is going through his own transition. He’s got his record 16 slams which takes some edge off the pursuit of greatness, and he just turned 29 himself. It showed in the first set tiebreaker. With Roger serving at 5-4 he got beaten by a Fish approach shot. While that’s not so bad, on the next shot Roger hit a weak shot into the net to give Fish a set point then Fish closed it out with an ace. Fish hung in there just as well in the second set, but in the second set tiebreaker Roger stepped up and went for shots and even a very fit Fish couldn’t catch up.

Fish played with the slightest bit of slop at 4-4 in the third set to lose his serve and Roger served out for the match. Don’t blame Fish too much or go overboard in praise of Roger. This was Fish’s sixth match of the week and his semifinal was a three setter with his good friend Andy Roddick. For Roger this was only his third complete match of the week after starting off with a bye followed by a retirement followed by a walkover

Fish needed a wild card here because he was #79 when Cincinnati announced the seedings, though he was #36 by the time the event rolled around. If Fish’s fantastic year continues he’ll have to defend all these points he’s racking up this year. If he plays Cincinnati next year he’ll have to reach the final or lose a lot of points. We’ll see what state he’s in when he has to deal with all of that and you can be sure I’ll be paying close attention.