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Monday, September 6, 2010
Djokovic brings the heat in win over Fish

Novak Djokovic's fans have seen this before at Grand Slams in 2010. They get their hopes up, and in the end, Djokovic lets them down.

It happened in Melbourne. Presented with a relatively clean path to the semifinals, a stomach illness surfaced against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Up two sets to one in the quarterfinals, he fizzled in five. More questions were asked about his seemingly frail body.

It happened in Paris. Cruising against streaky Austrian lefty Jurgen Melzer in the quarterfinals, Djokovic took his foot off the gas. Melzer, not known for his mental toughness, rallied from two sets down.

It happened in London. After ripping his shirt in celebration after overcoming grass-court threat Lleyton Hewitt, unbridled joy the Serb hadn't shown in a while, Djokovic inexplicably turned passive in the semifinals against Tomas Berdych and paid the price.

The U.S. Open looks more promising.

The 2008 swagger is still missing, but Djokovic overcame another sizable hurdle in New York on Monday, dumping one of the tour's hottest players, Mardy Fish, 6-3, 6-4, 6-1, in the fourth round.

"He kicked my butt," Fish said. "He played great."

For the second straight encounter, Djokovic didn't let spectators at Arthur Ashe Stadium get into it. Confronting fading veteran James Blake in blustery conditions Saturday night, Djokovic set the tempo by breaking in Blake's opening service game. The only excitement, really, emanated from a second-set tiebreaker.

Djokovic broke Fish in his opening service game, too, paving the way for a mostly comfortable afternoon in conditions that weren't quite hot enough to trouble the world No. 3, notoriously sluggish when the mercury rises substantially.

Fish shed 30 pounds this season and thus is in the best shape of his career, but it was ironic that left hamstring and ankle injuries pegged Fish at Flushing Meadows.

Did he get the balance right in singles and doubles? Fish expended plenty of energy at the Cincinnati Masters, and bailing from New Haven apparently wasn't enough to revive the 28-year-old. Fish underperformed against the unflattering trio of Jan Hajek, Pablo Cuevas -- facing 15 break points -- and 32-year-old Arnaud Clement prior to his much-hyped rendezvous with Djokovic.

Even if 100 percent, Fish was bound to struggle against Djokovic. The Serb remains a classy returner, and from the baseline, it's no contest.

Therein lay Fish's conundrum: If he stayed back, he had to hope Djokovic would miss. Djokovic loves targets, so attacking wasn't necessary a fool-proof solution. Fish triumphed only in half of his forays to the net. He never got used to the windier conditions on Ashe.

"It certainly is a matchup issue," Fish, now 0-5 against Djokovic, said.

So, the aces needed to flow. And he was out-aced 5-3. Djokovic isn't laboring on his serve, which hasn't been the case in recent times.

For those keeping track, that's 11 straight sets won by Djokovic -- facing pretty solid opposition. After almost losing to countryman Viktor Troicki in the first round, the blips have since disappeared.

Djokovic must be the favorite against Frenchman Gael Monfils in the quarterfinals. The sustained good play suggests he'll be a handful for whomever he confronts in a potential semifinal, be it Roger Federer or Robin Soderling.

Djokovic fans, lighten up. This could be the major he finally wakes up.