James Ward, the London cabbie's son, nearly pulled off the greatest win of his career yesterday as he pushed the No 10 seed Mardy Fish to a four-hour, five-set marathon. Fish eventually prevailed, and was almost as delighted with victory as Ward, the world No 173, would have been.
That is because it is only a month since the American had surgery to correct a heart abnormality he feared would kill him, or at the very least force him to retire. The 30-year-old woke up with palpitations in March and, having just read of Fabrice Muamba's collapse at White Hart Lane, feared the worst. Doctors established he was not in immediate danger of cardiac arrest but eventually decided to operate to be sure. Fish went back on the circuit, eschewing alcohol, reducing his caffeine intake and travelling with a heart-rate monitor. This was only his third match since March, and Ward could not have examined his fitness any further.
“I'm tired, but this is what you play for,” said Fish, a Wimbledon quarter-finalist last year. Of Ward he added: “He played a lot better than his ranking. He gave everything he had and was one of the tougher opponents I can remember playing here at Wimbledon.”
“I stayed in there as much as possible but he's a top player for a reason and he played well on the big points. In the end he was just a bit better than me,” said Ward. The Londoner was given a standing ovation by the No.1 court crowd and he said: “That was unbelievable. I've watched Wimbledon since I was a little kid and I don't recall too many of them so it was special. It was nice of Mardy, as well. He said the standing ovation was for me, so go out and enjoy it. That was nice.”
There was no hint of the drama to come at the start as Ward lost the opening three games before losing the first set 6-3. He was broken in his opening service game in the second as well but broke back to level at 4-4. He might have taken the set 6-4 but failed to take the first set point offered. Undaunted he broke Fish's next service game to win the set 7-5. Fish rallied to win a relatively brief third set 6-4, but Ward saved a match point to earn a tie-break in the fourth. This he won with successive challenges on Fish serves which had been called aces, but proved long.
As the sun beat down and the match moved into the fifth hour, the pair traded blows until the eighth game in which Fish forced three break points. Ward saved the first but then netted a forehand to give Fish the chance to serve out for the match. He took it, sealing the second match point with a 131mph ace.
Ward did not leave Wimbledon empty handed. After his first round victory he revealed he had sold his Arsenal season ticket as he could not afford it. The club, having read of his plight, sent him a goodie bag yesterday containing a replica shirt with his name on it, and an invitation to join them in the directors box at a match next season.
“They'd actually gone to a lot of effort to see who I've been playing,” said Ward. “It wasn't just, Good luck in your next match, it was against Mardy Fish. I appreciate it. Small details make a difference.”