The warm sunny days that Bogota enjoyed all week came to end on the final day of the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group play-off tie between Colombia and USA. It was a damp, grey Sunday morning when play started. Was it an omen, and if so, for who?
Santiago Giraldo got off to a sprinter’s start against Mardy Fish, needing a win to take the tie into a deciding fifth rubber and avoid defeat for the home team. From the beginning it looked like Giraldo had Fish on a leash because he was jerking him around the court so much.
A break of serve in the fifth game gave the Colombians some heat and it was not long till the upper deck boys stripped off their shirts spelling C.O.L.O.M.B.I.A on their chests. Fish had no solution for Giraldo’s baseline tactics and frustration set in when the Colombian served out the first set 6-3.
“I could not get a rhythm in the first set,” Fish admitted. “A lot of the reason was the great play of Giraldo.”
In the second set, Fish found the switch and turned on the power. A match that started out as the Battle of Bogota quickly became the Battle of Backhands, with both players relying on their favorite strokes to gain advantage.
While Giraldo ran around the court like a terrier, Fish was content to use smooth looping backhands to work the point. The first fist pump and “Come On” from the American came early in the second set, and though it brought jeers from the home fans in the bullring, it did seem to provide Fish a boost. He broke the Colombian at 1-1 and immediately held, seizing the momentum.
The third set began with impressive shot making from both players as the crowd reached fever pitch, leaving chair umpire Damien Steiner needing to use all his experience to keep control. Fish had started to switch tactics and went from delayed pressure to quick pressure, and charged the net. It worked to perfection and he took the third set 7-5.
“Mardy has great variety in his game,” expressed American captain Patrick McEnroe. “He can adapt to the situation and go to his toolbox as needed.”
Now, sensing that Giraldo was struggling, he began throwing soft slice backhands over the net that forced Giraldo to execute – at high altitude with pressure-less balls – the dreaded low to high mid-court ball.
“That is the toughest shot to hit in these conditions,” explained Jay Berger, the American team coach. “It is something that we discussed a lot all week and before Mardy’s match.”
There was a bit of a scare early in the fourth, when Fish slid and tumbled, plowing his racquet hand into the clay and ripping the flesh off three knuckles. With blood on his hands and the momentum swinging towards Colombia, Fish toughened up.
“It looked worse than it was,” said Doug Spreen, USA’s trainer. “Basically, we washed it out, Mardy gritted his teeth, and went back to work.”
When Giradlo broke at 2-2, the bullring erupted in a song of, “Ole’ Ole’ Ole’.”
Giraldo would go on to hold serve and close out the set, 6-4, sending the match to the fifth set and making Colombia believe in miracles.
For those people who love great tennis, the fifth set did not disappoint. Both players saved their best for last. Giraldo rifled passing shots like a sniper for hire, and Fish slung forehands and backhands around the court like a bare-knuckle bruiser.
The battle between the two nations became so intense you almost expected Colombia’s national hero, Simon Bolivar, to rise out of the grave and lead the charge. When Giraldo broke the American at five-all, it looked like this tie would go to the fifth rubber.
On that all important change over, McEnroe had some words for Fish.
“All during the match, I told him to think about the sacrifice and hard work that he has put in over the ten months,” said McEnroe. “And on that changeover, I said, keep believing.”
Fish obeyed his captain. With Giraldo serving for the match at 30-all, Fish went with his bread and butter, a gutsy backhand return approach shot that forced an error from Giraldo. Fish would break back.
Giraldo was playing for his country and he was not about to give up. Giraldo executed some world class passing shot winners to get three break points in the next game, but Fish answered with his own shot making, and after four hours and five minutes, Fish was at the net again, this time shaking before being swamped by his teammates and an emotionally drained captain.
This match will forever be remembered as the Mardy Fish Show, and for rescuing the Americans from relegation and sending them back to the prestigious World Group.
Rain began to fall in Bogota before the fifth rubber got under way so play was abandoned and a 3-1 result was recorded.