For much of this match, the champion threatened not just to fillet Mardy Fish, but to dice, boil and season him in some kind of rich, ingenious tennis bouillabaisse.
This, however, is the year when the tennis elite have disclosed their feet of clay – located, in many cases, quite literally in their feet. First Serena Williams trod on a glass in a darkened restaurant; then Kim Clijsters turned her ankle on the dance floor. And now we had this pesky bone in Rafael Nadal's left foot, which had introduced an insidious menace to the defence of his title.
But there proved nothing remotely wrong with his mobility as he hurtled into a two-set lead against Fish. And nor when he tore furiously around the court to avenge the fleeting negligence that required him to extend his stay on Court One to seven minutes short of three hours. In the end, he won through 6-3, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, and he confirmed that his foot felt "fine". By then, however, Fish had at least shown Andy Murray that even a winning streak of 19 matches here does not make Nadal by any means invincible.
We might have known that a guy named Mardy could party on grass. Just like Bernard Tomic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, however, the underdog made a dreadful start to his quarter-final, broken timidly in his first service game. It seemed to set an irrevocable tone. Fish had won 64 out of 65 service games in his first four matches. Never having made the last four of a Grand Slam, however, he was clearly trying to start the motor in third gear. In that first game, he mustered two first serves – an ace, and a routine serve and volley – but four meek second serves represented an invitation to the No 1 seed.
Perhaps Fish felt exposed by the fact that he seemed to be just about the only person in the arena sensing the slightest tension. With most of the crowd disappearing for a spot of tea, the players had knocked up in a genteel, listless atmosphere of some country house weekend. The storms of the previous day were spent, and high clouds hung benignly above the cool, blue afternoon. As Nadal raced into a 2-0 lead, moreover, the wails and shrieks of excitement from Centre Court permitted no doubt that something rather more competitive was reaching a climax between Messrs Federer and Tsonga.
The trouble was that Fish's hopes teetered precariously on his first serve. When it is functioning properly, the ball can seldom be retrieved with a mere tennis racket. It tends to require something more in the order of an industrial excavator. Without it, however, the poor man was bereft, his game laid mercilessly bare. Nadal was dismissing second serves from his presence with heartless disdain, and Fish managed to win just two of his five service games in the opening set – extended when Nadal had himself inattentively dropped serve at 5-2.
Fish does move gracefully round the court, and his business-like forehand won him a couple of break points in the third game of the second set, but Nadal promptly produced three booming first serves. And that, transparently, would remain the difference between them. Fish did not have the same head for heights. In the very next game he succumbed to a series of downhearted errors, twice finding the net when Nadal was in trouble.
The Spaniard closed out the set in perfunctory fashion, and when he broke serve in the first game of the third, everyone assumed the game was up. That unanimity appeared to be shared by his opponent, however, and he immediately relaxed. The moment the pressure was off, he began to serve and swing lustily. The crowd was thrilled, with the champion finally obliged to turn it on. Nadal, who had been keeping Fish away from the net with those whippy forehands, responded to his new aggression with some lavish backhand winners across the court.
Emboldened by this sudden glimpse of parity, Fish perhaps began to wonder about Nadal's foot. Suddenly Nadal found himself 15-40 down serving at 5-6 in the third. Fish missed his first chance with an overexcited forehand, but smeared the next across the court to land on the chalk.
Wearing that sombre scowl of his, Nadal did not take long to retrieve the initiative in the fourth. Fish stabbed an elementary volley into the net on break point in its third game, and Nadal defended the break with a love game. Fish was enjoying himself too much now, however, and as Murray came off Centre Court he may well have enjoyed a glimpse of Nadal scurrying irritably to and fro, goaded into occasional unforced errors, and exulting in every point that inched him closer. When he finally sealed the victory, he rightly joined the applause for Fish as he hastened from the court.
In the bigger picture, however, Fish's exit reiterates the sorry condition of the American game. Last month, albeit briefly, for the first week in rankings history not one American featured among the top 10 men or women. Clearly, this was partly because of injury to the Williams sisters, while Fish himself is now ranked No 9, reward for the rejuvenation he has achieved through cleaning up an execrable diet.
If his previous addiction to junk food is perhaps too glib an insight into the waning of a sporting superpower, the fact remains that the cognoscenti do not seem to expect the cavalry to appear on the horizon any time soon. The last American male to win a Grand Slam remains Andy Roddick, in the 2003 US Open, and even at his best yesterday Fish never threatened to be anything other than best supporting actor.Reuse content