By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
PARIS, France - It was a rough day for three U.S. teenagers at Roland Garros when Melanie Oudin, Christina McHale and CoCo Vandeweghe all went down, two of them, McHale and Vandeweghe, somewhat sadly in tight losses to Sara Errani and Maria Kirilenko, and the other, Oudin, quickly to defending champion Francesca Schiavone.
But Davis Cup warrior Mardy Fish held up the U.S. banner for the veterans and came through in fine form, knocking off Ricardo Mello 6-2, 6-7, 6-2, 6-4 in the first round. Fish was in top from all day, but he worked the points, served big at times, stayed steady and strong off the ground and put away some tough volleys.
At the age of 29, he has been through the grinder before at the French Open, including last year when he fell 10-8 in the fifth set to Ivan Ljubicic. But he doesn't get discouraged easily, his conditioning is excellent and he's an intelligent player. That's why he didn't get down on himself or panic after losing the second set tiebreaker.
"It was pretty close to three hours, if it wasn't three hours," Fish said. "I felt fine. Physically it wasn't an issue. And it can't be an issue if you want to win some matches here. Not everything is going to go exactly according to plan on this surface. Right now [my goal] is to just get to the third round. I've never done that before. Just by the changes that I've made and the sacrifices that I've made and the work ethic has changed, I set out to try to do some things that I've never done before at the French Open, win two rounds and put myself in this position and go from there. It doesn't sound like a mentality probably of a top 10 player, but it's mine here."
But Fish does feel like a top 10 player and is proud of it, reaching that mark for the first time earlier this spring. But ranking-wise, he's now America's top player with perennial top U.S. player Andy Roddick haven fallen to No. 11 and younger players John Isner and Sam Querrey out of the top 25. He said he's comfortable in the position.
"It's 10, so it's not five. It's not 11 either," he said. "There are only 10 guys in the top 10. It's extremely satisfying to be the top American, to be the top American seeded at this event on both sides. It's obviously a position I've never been in. It's exciting for me."
Fish is also the leader of the American group at the event. Five of the women who entered were 21 and under, and no veteran male or female is even a top 20 player. Neither of the Williams sisters were healthy enough to play, and one of his closest friends, James Blake, is still on the rebound from injury and didn't want to come over and try to qualify.
Fish has hoped to come to the event with another one of his close friends, Roddick, whom he reached the doubles final with in Rome, but Roddick hurt his shoulder and had to pull out of the final there, the tournament in Nice, as well as Roland Garros. So any young player looking for a few words of advice might be turning to the Florida native and now resident of Los Angeles. But that does not mean that Fish does not feel for Roddick.
"It's a bummer. Andy put a lot work in over here," he said. "He sacrificed a lot to come. I saw every single day what he was doing in Madrid and Rome. So to put the work in that he put in and then not get anything out of it here is the toughest thing for him."
Fish and a number of the Americans have already been in Europe for a month trying to get their feet used to sliding on dirt. It takes a person with a love of international life to be able to deal with working on the road in foreign countries and for most American players, it takes a few years before they can settle in and not get homesick. Oudin said after her loss to Schiavone that while she's much more comfortable in Paris than she was last year, she still gets the urge to go back home to Georgia.
Fish can relate to the woman a decade his junior.
"It's a long time over here for us," he said. "You can't just jump home like we can in the summer. We're in for the long haul here. It's tough, because this is the tournament you want to do well at the most. It's at the end, kind of when you want to get home the most. So in that sense, it's the toughest time of the year for us schedule wise, surface wise."
But the serious yet jocular Fish has no intention of going home yet, not when he's come into a Slam as America's main man, joining the likes of former Grand Slam winners like Roddick, Sampras, Agassi and Courier in that position. That's pretty heady stuff.
"I've never been in the position that I'm in right now as far as being the No. 1 American in men's and women's, and at a Grand Slam or seeded this high," he said. "So I want to enjoy it. My point is I want to enjoy it. I don't want to just get home or get to the grass or get to the summer [hardcourts], when a lot of times in the past you're just kind of looking forward to getting to the grass. I want to enjoy the time that I've had here, you know, being seeded as high as I've ever been."