Mardy Fish, the American who is playing in his first tournament at the 2012 Championships since having treatment for a heart condition, could not have asked for more searching proof of his restoration to health than the five-set four-hour battle he underwent on Court No.1 before ending the hopes of the British wild card James Ward. After emerging a 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, 6-7(3), 6-3 second round winner the 10th-seeded Fish embraced his tall English opponent as both men received a standing ovation.
Ward said he had never been involved in such an atmosphere. "It was unbelievable" he said. "Especially the standing ovation. Mardy said it was for me, so go out and enjoy it." And Ward did just that, with both arms raised in acknowledgement.
The 30-year-old Fish ended the 2011 season ranked eighth, his best-ever, but in March this year, while playing the Indian Wells Masters event, he had heart palpitations in the night. When he suffered a repeat at the Houston tournament in early April he had treatment in May to correct the problem and did not play again until he came to Wimbledon, insisting "It is totally behind me now".
On the face of it, a match against someone like Ward, standing at 173 in the world rankings, should have provided an undemanding examination of his condition, but on a hot, humid afternoon he found himself fully extended against someone who played the match of his life and was so nearly rewarded for it.
There was little sign of the drama to come early on, as Fish swept the first three games, controlling the rallies with accurate top-spun groundstrokes, and pocketed the opening set in 33 minutes. A break of serve at the start of the second set, followed by three successive aces, saw the American 2-0 ahead and when he led 4-2 he appeared on course for victory in straight sets.
But as he began to flag a little in the heat, Fish came under attack from an opponent who served well at the important moments and whose powerful hitting began to make inroads. Ward pulled level at 4-4, was denied two set points at 5-4, but in the set's 12th game he had his reward. He reached a third set point by running down a poor drop shot and flicking it away before winning the set with a forehand pass, to roars from the partisan crowd.
Fish needed to call on all his experience to keep his nose in front but, once again, as he captured the third set after a break of serve in the ninth game, victory seemed imminent. Indeed, after breaking to 4-3 in the fourth set, Fish had a match point at 5-3 on a net cord, only for Ward to fight it off, take the set to a tiebreak and win that by seven points to three.
Could he now win? The crowd certainly thought so, roaring him on, but the American's greater knowledge of the game stood him in good stead in a tense fifth set as Ward's inspired play began to flag and errors crept in. After breaking for a 5-3 lead Fish served for the match and finished it off with his 26th ace. He was a relieved man. "I was lucky to get through," he said. "James played very well today; he played good enough to win, for sure. He served as well as anyone has served against me all year.
"I was getting tired at the end just from lack of fitness a little bit, but that was to be expected. I haven't played in a long time, so I felt there were times where I could have played a little bit better."
Pondering what he could take from the match, even in defeat, Ward said, "You've got to have self-belief otherwise you're never going to be a good player. I've been playing at this level for a while, but the top players do it every week and that's the difference. That's the next step. And get a bit stronger physically."
And Fish's advice to the young Brit? "Keep playing like that."