By John Delong
Mardy Fish knows it will be a long process for him to regain the form that made him a Top 10 player most of 2011 and the first five months of 2012.
That’s just a fact of tennis life when you’ve been away from the game for the better part of the last 10 months because of heart issues.
So right now, Fish is content with small steps and incremental improvement.
He took another step in the right direction on Sunday night as he beat Evgeny Donskoy 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 in the first round of the third annual Winston-Salem Open.
The win was just his fourth ATP World Tour Main Draw victory of the year and his third of the summer after he returned from a three-month layoff last month. It was also the 300th singles victory of his career.
"I wish I had more tournaments before the US Open, for sure," the 31-year-old Minnesota native said. "It certainly is a process for sure and I certainly have a ways to go before I get to the spot where I was 12, 13 months ago. I played really well last summer. I played some of the best tennis of my life. My coach then, Mark Knowles, really had me going well.
"Right now I need matches. I need practice. My body needs to get used to long matches and matches in the heat, and you just can’t get that in three weeks."
Fish originally had a procedure to correct an irregular heartbeat caused by faulty electrical connections to the heart in the spring of 2012, came back to play last summer, but then was back on the shelf after the US Open. Before returning at Atlanta last month, he had played just one tournament – Indian Wells in April – in a 10-month span.
"It’s unfortunate," Fish said. "It’s a tough thing to take when you know it’s really nothing I can control at all, what happened and what went on. I was 7, 8 in the world when it happened. It was really hard to get there, really fun, a really fulfilling moment in my career. And then it was sort of all taken away in the last 12 months. You look up at your name and you’re ranked about 200, when 12 months ago I was playing the best tennis of my life. So it has been a process physically and mentally to come back."
Fish jumped on Donskoy, a 23-year-old Russian who came into the match ranked No. 82, early in the match, racing to a 3-0 lead in the first set and then serving out the set. He was broken twice by Donskoy to lose the second set, but then regained control and thoroughly dominated the third set.
"I got a little more aggressive in the third set," Fish said. "The finish line was pretty close, I guess. I just sort of stumbled there in the second set. Guys are too good where you can just play one bad game and all of a sudden it’s 3-5 and you’re going to a third. He’s a nice player. So all in all, it’s a good win."
Fish will have a quick turnaround, as he is scheduled to play 11th-seeded Jarkko Nieminen on Monday afternoon in the second round.
In the only other match of the night, the German team of Andre Begemann and Martin Emmrich beat Andreas Seppi and Igor Sijsling 7-5, 7-5.