Fish Finding His Place At His Own Pace
This is from the October issue of Tennis Life magazine...
Fish Finding His Place At His Own Pace
By Douglas Robson
Is Mardy Fish ready for the fishbowl of fame?
In the past year, the 22-year-old Tampa resident has emerged as the second-best player among a fine crop of young, talented American men. He has notched wins over elite players such as Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi, Carlos Moya and David Nalbandian. He has cracked the top 20, reached a Masters Series final, come within touching distance of an Olympic gold medal and become a regular Davis Cup team member.
Yet impressive as his results have been, the tanned, pony-tailed kid with the mellow ’tude of a California surfer has yet to live up to his prodigious abilities. That gap has been particularly glaring on the sport’s biggest stages—the majors—where Fish has never reached the fourth round. And it’s why the Minnesota native labors, to a large degree, in the shadow of childhood friend and fellow Floridian, Roddick.
“Andy has played big time and he deserves it,” Fish said of Roddick’s celebrity status.
If the two leading men of America’s Generation Next seem intertwined, there is good reason. Fish and Roddick are not only Davis Cup and Olympic teammates; they lived together for a year as teenagers, attended the same high school in south Florida and turned pro the same year, in 2000.
Fish stayed with Roddick’s family in Boca Raton while attending Boca Prep—their bedrooms were several feet apart—and the pals engaged in the usual teenage pursuits: chasing girls, watching movies and occasionally racing to school. “The loser paid for lunch,” Fish said, who piloted a Ford Mustang against Roddick’s Chevy Blazer.
While both agree that Fish is superior on the basketball court, it is the reigning US Open champion, Roddick, who has shined brighter on the tennis court in their young careers. Fish insists he is in no hurry to duplicate the feats of his high school buddy, who finished 2003 ranked No. 1—the youngest American in history to do so and the second youngest ever.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” Fish said. “I want to go at my pace. I don’t want anyone to say, ‘Why isn’t he in the top 10?’ I haven’t matured as fast as Andy has physically or mentally.”
In other words, Fish is his own man—in more ways than one. If Rod-dick is outgoing and almost edgy; Fish is laid back and more comfortable behind the scenes. While Roddick has had very public romances, notably with singer-actress Mandy Moore; Fish has played the bachelor until recently, when he started dating Ally Browne, a student at the University of Colorado. And whereas Roddick is bent on living up to the hype his early promise generated, Fish is progressing at his own pace.
With a monstrous first serve, quick hands and one of the best backhands on tour, most observers believe Fish has the best chance to follow Roddick into the top 10 despite other emerging American talents such as Taylor Dent, Robby Ginepri and James Blake. Fish has already risen higher in the rankings than any of those peers—he hit a career-best No. 17 in March—and has reached five tournament finals in the last 15 months.
Most notably of late, Fish plowed his way through a draw at the Athens Olympics that included Roddick, No. 1 Roger Federer and several other members of the top-10 to snag a silver medal—barely missing out on the gold after leading two sets to one against Chile’s Nicolas Massu as Roddick cheered on his friend from the stands.
“I think the most disappointing thing about it was that I just really wanted to hear the national anthem,” said Fish following his five-set loss. “I think that the Olympics is the biggest thing, and a gold medal is the biggest prize in sports.”
But that hasn’t silenced critics who contend Fish’s pace is too lax considering his talents. Indeed, his performances have fluctuated between brilliant and dreadful. After beating Spaniard Moya at the 2003 Australian Open—the second time in two weeks he upended the former French Open champ—Fish capitulated to Wayne Ferreira in the next round after leading by two sets. He played brilliantly last summer to reach his first Masters Series final in Cincinnati and held two match points against Roddick, but then lost in the second round of the US Open later that month to the veteran Karol Kucera of Slovakia.
This year has been more of the same. Fish made the final at the Wimbledon tune-up in Halle, Germany, but slumped out of the All England Lawn Tennis Club in the second round, losing to Sweden’s Joachim Johansson. In 11 attempts, Fish has never been beyond the third round at a Grand Slam, and in six career finals, he has an unsightly 1–6 record, his sole win coming at Stock-holm last year. His stellar Olympic run, too, represented a breakthrough and a chance to do something Roddick has never done. But again, he fell a tad short when the finish line was in view. Fish is quick to admit that his performances lack consistency.
“It’s disappointing,” Fish said dejectedly following his Wimbledon loss. “I’ll be the first to tell you: I’ve only made the third round in a couple of Slams. It sets you back and makes you think, ‘Why can I do so well at normal tournaments like Halle and then not do well in the Slams?’ I’d really be asking myself if I can win a tournament if I hadn’t won Stockholm.”
To be fair, his roller coaster 2004 season has been due in part to a hip injury that forced Fish to miss Roland Garros while sitting out six weeks this spring. “The last few months have been tough because I haven’t really played,” he said. “I’ve just been on the bad-luck end of a lot of matches this summer. I felt like hopefully all the bads would ball up into one big good, hopefully at a big tournament like the US Open or the Olympics,’’ Fish said.
Yet questions about Fish’s work habits persist. Some tennis insiders say he has not pushed himself to get into the kind of shape required to go deep in majors, though no one seems to question the 6'2" player’s talent. Fish himself admitted he got tired at the end of his match against Chilean Nicolas Massu, who had spent a whopping 24 hours, 43 minutes on court during the Games over 11 matches, including doubles.
“If I could sit down with him and have a serious discussion, I would tell him that he is one of the top eight most talented players in the game and that he has not fulfilled that potential,” said ESPN commentator Cliff Drysdale, who calls himself a big fan of Fish. “I think he feels maybe that things are coming pretty easily to him and that he could be satisfied with second best. But it’s something he’ll regret if he doesn’t get his act together and give it everything he’s got.”
That sentiment is echoed by U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe, who has a vested interest in seeing the cadre of young players he’s cultivating maximize their potential. “He’s got a lot of weapons with his serve and his backhand,” McEnroe said, “and now that he’s shored up his forehand side a little bit, he really doesn’t have an obvious weakness in his game. Mardy has a lot of raw, athletic ability. The fitter he gets the more his game will blossom.”
Fish, for his part, believes the criticism is unfounded. “That’s unfair,” he said. “I haven’t done anything differently than I’ve done in the past.”
Whether he can raise his game to Roddick-like standards is a question that should be answered in the last months of the season. Fish has been working hard with Kelly Jones, his coach since 2002, to build up his strength and mental consistency. Jones, a former pro, recently relocated to Florida to be closer to his charge. Fish has been be back on his favored hard courts for the North American stretch leading up to the US Open. With many points to defend, his performance could be telling for how far his game has really come.
Then there is Davis Cup. In Septem-ber, the Americans take on Belarus in Charleston, South Carolina, for a berth in the finals against France or Spain. Anything but a trip to the last round would be a major U.S. disappointment.
“It’s going to be exciting,” Fish said of teaming with Roddick in Davis Cup as well as the Olympics. Before the Games, where the two played doubles but lost early, Fish commented, “How many people get to play the Olympics in their lives? It’ll be fun to play doubles with Andy. I mean, when we grew up I don’t think we could ever imagine ourselves playing doubles in the Olympics trying to win a medal.”
With Davis Cup providing another patriotic shot in the arm and a chance to play for something bigger than personal glory, Fish could find himself stealing more of the limelight from Roddick, as he did in Athens with his Olympic medal.
Silver is not gold, but it might be just the lining Fish needs to start wearing the mantle of champion on a more consistent basis.
The fishbowl is ready. Is Mardy?