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Steve Flink: Fish Has Earned His Place At Top

4/11/2011 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Think briefly if you will about the elite cast of men who have ruled at the top of American tennis since the official ATP World Tour Rankings were established back in 1973. Stan Smith was the first American to gain that distinction in 1973. Jimmy Connors first made it to the top of American tennis in 1973 as well. John McEnroe stepped up to No. 1 in 1980. At 18, Andre Agassi became the top ranked American in 1988. Briefly yet indisputably, Michael Chang in 1989 and Brad Gilbert the following year established themselves at No. 1 in the nation. Along came Jim Courier to rule as the best of the Americans in 1991. Pete Sampras climbed to the very top of tennis in his country in 1992. Andy Roddick made it to the top of the mountain in 2003. For nearly the entire time since, Roddick has been the main man of American tennis, wearing that robe as if had been made exclusively for him. James Blake moved past Roddick to No. 1 in the U.S. for a while, arriving at the top in 2006.

But last week, a new man became King of American Tennis. Mardy Fish did not get there by accident. He has become only the eleventh American men’s No. 1 since the official computer rankings were introduced because he is fitter and more focused than ever before. Fish got to the top of his country’s charts as a result of his newfound commitment to moving beyond the sporadic brilliance of his past and demanding something more of himself.

Fish is 29 now as he stands at a career high of No. 11 in the world and, more importantly, No. 1 in his nation. I spoke with him by phone when he was in Houston last week for the U.S. Clay Court Championships, where he would lose in the quarterfinals to Kei Nishikori.  That defeat will surely not diminish his enthusiasm or erode his confidence as he pushes on toward his highest priorities this season. Asked about his rise to No. 1 in the U.S. and how his perspective has been altered by his reshaped outlook as a player with larger aspirations, Fish responds, “You certainly step back and think about all of the sacrifices you have made to get there. If you set goals and then you achieve them, you’ve got to sit back and relish the moment and relish how you got there. You look at how hard it is to be in the position you are in. You don’t take that for granted. If you get there, you always are going to want more. So it is important to step back and say, ‘Wow, this is pretty good and I have accomplished a lot’, but on the other hand you never want to be satisfied.”

I wanted to know much of Fish’s ascent he would attribute to his vastly improved fitness level, and how large a part of it could be explained by his markedly improved court craft. He said, “A lot of it is fitness and a lot is the mental side of the game as well. Look, I have been a good player for a long time but I have never been very consistent throughout a year. Injuries have played a huge part in my career at times when I did get going and was playing well, so consistency is a major thing that comes with being fit and being healthy throughout an entire season. I have been able to do that more than I ever have in my career. The bottom line is I have put in more work than I ever have and it is paying off.”

That is plainly the case. One of the chief areas of Fish’s growth as a tennis player has been his capacity to make his forehand a more dependable and solid stroke. Watching him play over the last year, I have been astonished at times to see how much more difficult it is for opponents to break down Fish’s forehand wing. Although his first serve—probably the most underrated delivery in the upper reaches of the sport—and his sweetly timed and totally pure two-handed backhand will always be his primary strengths, the forehand is vastly improved, and his propensity to stay in rallies and wait for his openings off that side have made Fish the greater player he now is.

“It certainly is an improved shot of mine,” he affirms. “My fitness level and my forehand were my glaring weaknesses. I feel like I am as fit now as anyone. I love playing in the heat and humidity in places like Atlanta or Cincinnati. Doing well in those events isn’t easy and the conditions are extremely hard and extremely physical. So the fitness has been very important along with the forehand. To make the forehand better was about understanding patterns. My backhand is my strength but I hit it better crosscourt than I do down the line. With my forehand, from the middle of the court I hit it better to one side of the court than I do to the other. I understand my tendencies better now, and know what shots I hit better and what I shots I don’t hit as well.”

Having said that, Fish reaffirms that in his mind, “The mental side of the game is huge. I talk about that with my coach all the time. The USTA has been a huge help to me in supplying David Nainkin, someone who is a huge proponent of the mental game. Jay Berger has also helped me in that way as well. I have made huge strides in that area, not only in showing up match after match, but not giving up, not giving in and not giving my opponent anything. I am not showing my opponent that I am tired or physically hurting when that happens.”

When Fish made that comment, I could not help but think of his poise and professionalism in fending off Juan Martin Del Potro 7-5, 7-6 (5) in the round of 16 at Miami a few weeks ago. Fish would admit after closing out the tie-break that his calves were killing him and a third set victory would have been highly unlikely for him. After Del Potro had saved two match points, Fish stood at 6-5, and surprised Del Potro by sending his serve into the body. Del Potro drove an awkward forehand return long. I mentioned to Fish that it was not apparent that he was in such a physical bind, and he replied, “That is the goal. There are some matches that jump out at you when you are hurting maybe worse than the other guy but you just don’t want to show it. That was a huge part of the end of that match with Del Potro, and it is something I have been working on. No doubt about that. The mental side is as big as anything and I am starting to realize that more than ever now.”

Listening to Fish speaking so thoughtfully about his evolution, the striking thing about his responses was how much of a difference his experience has made across the board. Things somehow went wrong after his surge to the final of Indian Wells in 2008. I believed then that Fish would take his place among the top ten in the world later that season, but he stalled. He simply didn’t have the maturity then that he does now. As Fish says, “For sure it is a question of maturity. Being immature in that situation after Indian Wells in 2008 wasn’t necessarily about what happened on the court. I played a great Indian Wells that year and beat a lot of good players that week and then I got to Miami the next week and lost in the first round because I was satisfied with what I had done at Indian Wells. You see that with a lot of guys in their careers where they have good results one week and it is really hard for them to duplicate it the next week. That comes with being mentally tough, not giving in, wanting more, not being satisfied. These are all the things that come with experience and maturity and it was something I definitely didn’t have back then that I certainly have now.”

As Fish examines himself and his status as the best player in his country, he salutes others around him for the contributions they have made to his success. As he puts it, “You come to realize it is not simply you out there. In a sense I am playing by myself but a lot of people have invested in me, not only now but in previous years. And that is something I didn’t realize before—the feeling of wanting to play for them as well. People have put in a lot of work for me over the years, coaches and trainers and my wife and parents. Whenever you play matches, they are hanging on every point and I didn’t realize this before, but having a wife and wanting to start a family soon, I know now what those closest to me have done and what they go through.”

A prime example is surely Mardy’s father, teaching professional Tom Fish. No one has been a more steadfast supporter. Tom Fish has been an invaluable mentor, ally and unconditional booster of his son. As Mardy Fish says of his dad, “He has been the biggest supporter of me through my entire life and someone who really does watch every point of every match I play. If it is not only television, he follows it on the computer on live scoring. He has never missed a match and is someone that has always been there for me. He is someone I will call immediately after I have a good win or a bad loss. I can’t thank my parents enough for giving everything they have got to give me every possible advantage. My father has been invaluable.”

The next six months will be a crucial and defining stretch for Fish as he seeks to live up to his new label as the premier American, and looks to advance for the first time beyond the quarters of a major event. As he says, “I have made it to the quarters of a Slam twice and beat good players but I haven’t had that one huge signature win at a major before. That is something I am really looking forward to doing. As far as winning one of the majors, once you get that far and make it past the quarters and go into the semis, you are right there. If you can win four or five matches in a Slam, you can win seven—believe me. That is certainly a spot I have never been in before and I am not sure how it feels but I would love to have the opportunity.”

Fish was on a good roll coming into the 2010 U.S. Open after blazing through the summer with a tournament win in Atlanta and a final round appearance in Cincinnati. He lost in the round of 16 in New York to Novak Djokovic, but he seemed ready to close the year in style after that. Unfortunately for the American, an ankle injury shortened his season and kept him from finishing the year any higher than No. 16 in the world, which was still no mean feat. Yet he would surely have moved higher than that if he had been healthy and ready for the closing events of the year indoors.

But the fact remains that Fish gave a heroic effort in leading the U.S. past Colombia in Davis Cup last September, winning two singles matches and joining John Isner to capture the doubles. That was on clay in high altitude, which was not the easiest of circumstances for Fish to display his finest tennis. As he recollects, “That was the most fun time of the whole year for me. Giving so much mentally and physically and just getting used to the altitude those three days and dealing with the pressureless balls—there is so much that goes on that people who were not there don’t know about. But I came back home after that for only about six days and went to Beijing after the long summer. It was really tough to get up for that after Davis Cup and I had an unlucky ankle injury, but I was spent man, mentally as well as physically.

“Playing that many matches last summer was something I wasn’t used to. Was I bummed out by having a break after Beijing? I would be lying if I said I was. I was not bummed out. Looking back that is another growing experience for me where maybe you want to try to push through as much as you can. The ankle injury didn’t allow me to do that but if I had not had that injury, you wonder how I would have handled going to Basle and Paris at the end of the year. I was so drained by then after winning more matches than I ever have in a year. I hope I would have been able to stick it out, but I know now that I have been through that scenario and I know how to handle it.”

Despite all of the trials and tribulations of being a top flight player since 2003—when he finished the year at No. 20 in the world—Fish is a young 29 in many ways, ready to make the most of the next couple of years. Does he feel like a young 29? “I do believe that. I certainly do. I have had a few injuries and the thyroid problem I had this year in Australia was so unlucky because I was so looking forward to that Grand Slam. Maybe minus the U.S. Open that was the most important one for me that I have ever had going in. I had lost in the first round the year before and I was going back as No. 16 in the world so that was a bummer. But I certainly don’t feel like 29. I know that 29 is not old in regular years but in tennis years it is pretty old. But I cherish being in the spot that I am in right now. I really want to cherish this time. My wife travels with me and I really enjoy her being around and playing now is a lot of fun for me.”

His enjoyment in what he is doing is strikingly apparent. But the way he goes about exploiting his outermost potential is a critical part of the process. When Fish lost 30 pounds a while back, that clearly made him into a player with wider options. His greater versatility on offense and defense was irrefutable all across 2010, and during his run to the semifinals of Miami a few weeks ago. But is there a danger for him now that he is so fit that he can fall into a pattern of defending too frequently rather than following his old instincts and going on the attack?

“There is,” answers Fish. “And that was probably one of the things that happened to me at the U.S. Open last year. Tactically I don’t think I played extremely well. I was just so confident about my fitness so that I felt I could just grind guys down into the fourth round. But if you play a defensive style against a guy like Djokovic he is going to crush you. That was an example of needing to stick to my guns if you will and playing the style of tennis I have been accustomed to. My best style is to be aggressive and have the racket on my end. To be honest, I just feel that the defense and fitness level has allowed me to steal five, six, seven or even eight points a match, and that is a huge number.”

When Fish took on Djokovic again in the semifinals of Miami this year, he was beaten 6-3, 6-1, but did that score really do the American justice? “It really didn’t,” he answers. “I felt like I really played well in that first set and it is one of those things where you walk off the court after playing a match like that and you feel if two points would have gone the other way the score and the result of the match could have been completely different. That being said, he crushed me in the second set and he is an unbelievable front runner. The guy is playing from in front as good as anyone. I knew I was playing well in that match but I hadn’t come up against somebody like him this year, somebody playing that  well. Not many people have. It is his playground right now. He is as confident as I have ever seen anyone on the court. He is moving as well as I have seen anyone move on hard courts. He doesn’t have any weaknesses, and that is extremely hard to play against.”

In any event, Fish is adjusting well to life atop the American ladder. How important does he believe it is for the leading Americans to have a significant presence on the worldwide stage? Is that something the sport needs badly in this country? He replies, “I think it is very important for the game here. What people don’t understand is how popular the game is outside of the United States and how cool it is to be in a city like Paris with everything revolving around tennis for two weeks. It is important that Americans are playing deep in those events when more people are watching. The casual sports fans don’t watch that many regular tournaments in the States. So being an American and playing well into those big events is definitely important.”

As Fish looks at some of the younger players coming up through the ranks in the U.S. these days, he finds himself admiring the way Ryan Harrison is approaching the craft. “He impresses me a ton,” Fish says of Harrison. “Qualifying and winning a round at the U.S. Open after not getting a wildcard was one thing I thought was impressive. And seeing him get to Australia so early this year stood out to me as well. Andy Roddick and I get down there extremely early to prepare better than anyone and Ryan was there before us this year. He does the little things that make a difference, the impressive little things that 18-year-olds don’t [usually] do. I really like how he goes about his game. Does he have a long way to go as far as his game is concerned? Absolutely he does, but at his age he is doing all the right things. There is no doubt about that.”

There is also no dispute that Mardy Fish has earned his place as the top ranked American player. He has transformed himself from a first rate player into something much larger than that. Elevating his game in that fashion has given him an inner conviction and enduring belief that he lacked in the past. But Fish refuses to let his ego become inflated. His ambitions may be wider and deeper, but his sense of self and humility remain essentially the same. As he concludes, “It is extremely humbling for me to be in this position. It certainly wasn’t a goal of mine to be the No. 1 in this country. Being in the top ten [in the world] was a huge goal. To be honest I don’t feel like it [No. 1 in the U.S.] because of the career that Andy has had and how much longer he has been there, longer than anyone else in my era. So I won’t ever feel I have leapfrogged him. However, it is something cool to tell your friends that you are the No. 1 American, and it has got a nice ring to it.”