- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Mardy Fish won a tennis match Monday night at the Citi Open, which might not seem like a very big deal.

It was the 298th ATP Tour or Grand Slam victory of his career, and it didn’t earn him a trophy or many ranking points. But as the 31-year-old tries to rebound from heart problems that have taken a physical and mental toll for much of the past two years, each step is important.

Fish’s 2-6, 6-1, 6-3 comeback against Matthew Ebden of Australia at Rock Creek Park was his first victory since March and only his second since last fall’s U.S. Open. He lost a three-setter to journeyman Michael Russell last week in Atlanta, his first Tour-level match since Indian Wells four months ago, so he hasn’t had much to build on as he tries to work his way back.

“It’s like anything else, you get a little rusty,” Fish said. “I’ve been practicing and working my butt off for months, biding my time, being very conscious of when I need to start and what I need to accomplish. There are a lot of things apart from tennis that are still rusty, too. Being in a situation where you’re serving for the match — I haven’t done that in a long time.”

A little more than two years ago, Fish was ranked No. 7 in the world. He now sits at No. 64. The past few months have been a bit of a roller coaster for Fish, who skipped all of this year’s Grand Slams, among other events, as he tried to work his way back to full strength.

After playing at such a high level in years past before being sidelined by heart problems, it makes sense why Fish might find himself anxious about returning to the big stage. The past couple of weeks have seen him start to overcome his struggles and make his way back into his regular groove.

Fish has been hard at work shaping his mind and body to be ready for a return. Even a single win can do a lot for someone who has been away from the game for an extended period.

“It feels good, real good,” Fish said of beating Eblen. “I played well in practice. Put in a lot of hours. It’s been months. He’s a guy I lost to before [last year at Indian Wells] and he’s a good player. It’s satisfying to win for sure.”

Fish’s next match is Washington is against 12th-seeded Julien Benneteau, another step in a slate of tournaments leading up to the U.S. Open. It was in New York last year that Fish was forced to withdraw before a scheduled fourth-round match against Roger Federer on the advice of medical officials. Since then has worked hard to make sure he will be able to overcome his physical and mental struggles.

“I struggled mightily during the U.S. Open last year, but those sort of post-traumatic experiences that I’ve had … are what I need to get over right now,” he said. “But it’s a process and it’s not an easy game.”

Even with all the hard work he’s put in, it’s not easy for someone to return to a professional sport of any kind without shaking off a bit of rust. It was clear that Fish struggled in the first set against Eblen; he was even holding his side a bit.

Fish said he has worked during his absence on “finding more peace on the court” and had to turn to that Monday after falling in that early hole. He rediscovered his energy early in the second set and was on his way.

Fish really needed something to get him back in the swing of things — a surge of confidence, especially against someone he knew had beaten him in the past. He mentioned that he found that spark in the first game of the second set. This spark may be a microcosm of what these smaller tournaments can do for Fish’s morale.

“He needs to get his confidence because he hasn’t been playing a lot of matches the last few months,” said Donald Dell, longtime tennis promoter and co-founder of the Citi Open. “He’s got to work his way back into the circuit by winning matches and this is a good place for him to start because he likes playing here and generally plays well. … He’s just got to get back and confident.”

Even when things come together for Fish like they did Monday in the final two sets, it’s still a long road toward the U.S. Open, and he will need to keep working to find his way back to 100 percent.

“It’s still a process for sure, and there’s no doubt about it,” Fish said. “I still feel a little uneasy and that’s to be expected. It’s not going to be roses right away, and these are tough tournaments.”

NOTES: In Tuesday’s action, Jack Sock defeated Igor Sijsling, Ryan Harrison downed Lleyton Hewitt and former University of Virginia star Somdev Devvarman beat Alexandr Dolgopolov. On the women’s side, Madison Keys topped Michelle Larcher de Brito and top seed Angelique Kerber beat Irina Falconi.