Mardy Fish pushed to the max

WIMBLEDON, England -- When it was finally over, some 4 hours, 13 minutes after it began, a limp Mardy Fish could not even muster a fist pump.

He slowly raised his arms and, squinting in the fading sunlight, surveyed the capacity crowd at Court No. 1 that was on its feet, applauding. He took a deep breath and forced a small smile.

This is not the kind of test you're looking for when you're two matches into a comeback from a heart scare. Fish prevailed over plucky British wild card James Ward 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-3. Immediately afterward, in his just-off-the-court interview with the BBC, he seemed to have difficulty stringing sentences together.

"I'm tired, that's for sure," the No. 10 seed said. "You know, these are the situations you play for. That's why I'm here."

The match wasn't decided until it had crept past the four-hour mark, when Fish broke Ward's serve at 3-4 in the fifth set. A deft drop shot gave him the game, and a few minutes later, he ended it with a sizzling ace down the middle, his 26th of the match.

Despite warm and humid conditions, Fish played a technically clean match, producing 40 more winners than unforced errors.

After his first-round match, stomach distress caused by pain-killers forced Fish to miss his postmatch news conference. At times during the match he was slow to catch his breath. Later, in the fifth set, he retreated between points to the few shady spots on the edge of the court.

Fish says he has been cleared by the doctors and that his heart arrhythmia has been corrected by a surgical procedure. It's his stamina that's in question since he only returned to practice midway through the French Open about three weeks ago.

He'll be tested Saturday by David Goffin, the 22-year-old from Belgium who made a stir at the French Open.

For Brian Baker, the wildly improbable ride continues.

Thursday, he was making the media rounds; there was not one, but two BBC interviews, a visit with the swelling ranks of American reporters, an interview in the ESPN studio and several Internet interviews. He actually conducted one Q&A on his way into the bathroom.

"I don't feel I'm absolutely sensing the gravity of what's happened the last two months," Baker said. "You obviously don't go out there thinking that you're not going to be successful. I'm not just happy to be out there."

But, of course, in a larger sense, he is.

You may know the story. A talented junior, he was struck down by a series of debilitating injuries. There were five career-threatening surgeries -- one of them a Tommy John-style elbow reconstruction -- and a six-year sabbatical when he played in a Nashville, Tenn., men's league and helped coach the Belmont college team.

And now, over the past two months, Baker has been healthy -- and nearly unbeatable. He ripped through a Challenger in Savannah, Ga., winning three qualifying matches and five in the main draw for the title. That helped secure the USTA wild card at the French Open. So, he traveled to Nice, France, for a clay warm-up -- and won seven matches before losing in the final. He then lost in the second round at Paris and his first qualifying match at Queen's Club.

At Wimbledon? He's a perfect 5-0, with three more qualifying wins and, now, a scorching 6-0, 6-2, 6-4 win over Jarkko Nieminen. Baker won 11 of the first 12 games.

"That really relaxed me a lot," he said. "Felt pretty comfortable after that."

That comfort level could extend to the second week of Wimbledon; Baker plays Benoit Paire of France on Saturday for a berth in the fourth round. That would vault him into the top 100. In a measure of how far he's come, Baker's ranking will be affected by the 18 points he has coming off from the tournament he played 12 months ago, a Pittsburgh Futures event.

Jesse Levine, the 24-year-old from Boca Raton, Fla., qualified his way into Wimbledon for the fourth time this year. But, after a first-round win over Karol Beck, he's out of the tournament. Goffin took down Levine in four sets.

On Friday, two young American women will be severely tested in the third round by a pair of high seeds from Germany.

Christina McHale, a 20-year-old from Englewood Cliffs, N.J., defeated Mathilde Johansson 7-5, 7-5. This is the fourth straight major in which McHale has advanced to the third round.

"Really?" she said, eyes widening. "I didn't know that."

Two wins per Slam at the beginning of her career -- that's how consistent she has been. McHale has systematically climbed up the rankings ladder; she was No. 425 at the end of 2008, No. 218 a year later, No. 115 in 2010 and No. 42 at the end of last season. Currently, she is No. 32 and seeded in a Grand Slam, at No. 28, for the first time.

Now, can she go where she has never gone before -- the second week of a major? It will be difficult because she plays No. 8 seed Angelique Kerber. The two met earlier this year at Indian Wells, with McHale losing in a third-set tiebreaker. She sighed when the subject came up.

"I'll go back and look at the things I did well in that match," McHale said. "I like the way I'm playing."

So does Sloane Stephens, the 19-year-old from Coral Springs, Fla., who has won five of her past six Grand Slam singles matches. She gets hard-serving Sabine Lisicki, the No. 15 seed and a semifinalist here a year ago.

Varvara Lepchenko continued her run at the Euro Slams, beating No. 31 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 7-6 (4), 6-4. She likely will have to beat defending champion Petra Kvitova on Saturday to reach the second week of her second consecutive Grand Slam.