Andy Murray, playing a little-known but highly talented Russian named Evgeny Donskoy, had a scare before winning on Sunday. But that type of scare is nothing, of course, like the health scare Mardy Fish has been facing these past few months as heart problems seemed to threaten his entire career.
So there was a lot of emotion flowing around the vast Center Court here at the BNP Paribas Open on a cloudless desert day as Fish recovered from 2-4 down in the final set to beat compatriot Bobby Reynolds 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 in the second round in his first competitive match in more than six months.
"It's been a tough few months for sure," Fish admitted. "There are still some demons there that you try to fight but it's just nice to be out in the sun playing for something again."
Fish, who rose to No. 7 in the world in August 2011, had moments when he wondered if being out in the sun playing for something would ever happen. "The first three months after the US Open (where he withdrew in the fourth round because of his health last September) I had retired and non-retired in my head almost every week. And there was a while where I was done. I had gotten it through my head that I was just trying to get my normal life back. I don't envision that happening again but it certainly is possible."
Reynolds, who gave a teary Fish a big embrace at the net, echoed the feelings of the locker room when he said, "It's great to see him back. Everybody you talk to is happy to see him back. He's great for the game and definitely for American tennis. I don't know the full extent of what he's been going through but I guess whenever you're dealing with heart stuff it's definitely a scary time."
Fish says he is going to play the ATP Masters 1000 Sony Open at Miami later this month and then reassess. "Maybe step back and see how I feel, see where I am personally, see, if after these two weeks, it is still something I can do at a high level."
When asked how he felt after winning match point, he replied. "Elation probably. There's been a couple of people who have been really there for me these past months and it felt good to play for them, as well. My wife has been a rock at my side the entire time and it has been difficult for her, too."
Faced with that 2-4 deficit in the third set, Fish delved into the memory bank in search of victory. "All of a sudden you find yourself deep in the third set and losing," he said. "Some of that sort of fight starts kicking in and you want to win. It was nice. I certainly didn't expect to win so soon. I've been playing for quite a while now (in practice) but competitive matches, you can't duplicate those."
The one semi-competitive match Fish played was last week against Novak Djokovic in a Los Angele exhibition that Fish organized with Justin Gimelstob. "It was a great thing for me to be able to do," he said. "I couldn't just walk away from that if I wasn't feeling well. We had almost 9,000 people in an event we put a lot of sweat into. It was rewarding, for sure."
It was a bittersweet experience for the 30-year-old Reynolds, who has been a star on the Washington Kastles World Team Tennis squad that has racked up a 32-match unbeaten streak over the last two seasons.
Reynolds is used to closing out single-set matches played to five games in WTT, but the longer format on a huge court against a former top-10 player is a different deal and he double faulted twice at 4-3 to let Fish back into the match.
"The whole week I have struggled with my serve and I knew that playing Mardy or any great returner, just kicking in a second serve to his backhand would put me on the defense right away. So I knew I needed to go after more second serves and that's what happens."
Murray might have been wondering what was happening when he found himself trailing 1-5 in the first set to Donskoy, a 22-year-old from Moscow ranked 83rd in the world. Although the No. 3 seed had started a little tentatively -- this was his first match since the Australian Open -- no one could suggest Donskoy did not deserve his lead. Lashing out at the Scot's second serve and cracking winners from unlikely angles as he moved inside the court, Donskoy revealed a talent that could take him far.
Murray eventually found his bearings and broke back for 5-all but could not grab any of the six break points he earned, any one of which would have left him serving for the first set. More Russian winners led to a third break of Murray's serve and the set, and it was only at the start of the second that Donskoy released his grip on the match as the relentless accuracy of Murray's returns wore him down. In the end, a 5-7, 6-2, 6-2 win looked comfortable enough, but Murray knows that Donskoy will be one to watch in the future.
"He played some good stuff," said Murray who admitted that not having seen his opponent before contributed to his slow start. "He's quite an easy player. He doesn't force anything. I think he's pretty smart on court, too. He doesn't kind of go for shots that aren't on and doesn't make many mistakes."
Gunter Bresnik, the Austrian coach who has been helping Ernests Gulbis on his current 12-match unbeaten streak, had seen Donskoy before. "He has a big talent," said Bresnik. "But beware, he's not the only one coming out of Russia and the Ukraine. They have a lot of young players coming through."