BRICKER: Martin schooling fresh Fish
June 27, 2006
WIMBLEDON, England -- Whack! Gotcha.
There was a contrived evil smile on Todd Martin's face as he slammed a volley off Mardy Fish's right leg, producing a point in a little game of Bucket at the end of a one-hour training session.
No one is quite sure why it's called Bucket, a pleasant, if slightly painful diversion that combines a few laughs with some serious volley work.
Players stand on the service lines and drive volleys at each other. Don't pop one up or, as coach Martin demon-strated, you'll pay.
Notwith-standing some lingering soreness and some yellow fuzz clinging to the hairs on his thigh, Fish has scarcely been in a better place, emotionally and physically, than he is now.
"This was the trip I missed the most last year," he said later, reviewing the season he lost in 2005 to double wrist surgery and marveling over the progress he has made this year. "This is what means the most to me. "Wimbledon. ... I mean, I feel so comfortable on grass. I'm just excited to be playing well again, and that it didn't take but a month and a half to get my game back."
It really is quite amazing that Fish, whose ranking dived to 341 on Feb. 20, is now at No. 86. He's straight into Wimbledon and, as one of only four players to take a set from Roger Federer here in the past three years, there isn't a player in his path who isn't deeply concerned about facing him, starting with his good buddy in the first round, Robby Ginepri.
For a long time, Fish, 24, was every American pundit's favorite whipping boy.
Lazy. Spoiled. Inconsistent. He's heard all the appellations.
He's not hearing them now. This is the new, fully matured Mardy Fish.
"I worked my tail off for five straight months off the court while I was recovering from the surgery," he said. "I'm much more mature than I was two years ago.
"Just having been through the year I was through last year, looking at the big picture, I'm very blessed and I knew I had a great life.
"But I didn't want to be sitting on my butt."
The surgeries, in June and September, were, he has concluded, "a blessing in disguise. There is no secret I needed to get into shape. What it was, I think, is that I did well early in my career without really doing much off the court."
The game always was easier, more natural for Fish than it was for Andy Roddick.
"Yeah, for sure," Fish agreed when asked if that ease of performance made him less committed to his off-court work. "But even before my wrist problems, at the beginning of 2004, I made a commitment to get more fit."
Part of that commitment was calling Martin, one of the most cerebral top 10s to play the game, and asking him to become his coach.
There are coaches out there, desperate enough to work with a player of Fish's talent, that they won't crack the whip for fear of being told to hit the road.
Martin isn't one of them.
Married with two children and completely comfortable in his post-tennis life, Martin was the fit Fish needed.
"I have this great feeling he knows exactly how I should play to win," Fish said. "He's been in every situation, so that's great to have him in your corner. "I just felt we had similar styles of play. What he had that was better than me was up here," Fish said, pointing to his brain. "He could incorporate shot selection, tactics, how to handle a loss in a big match. He's not going to bow down to some kid whose highest ranking was 17. That's peanuts for him."
Whether Fish plays Ginepri today is questionable. They're on the schedule, but with so many rain postponements from Monday, it could easily be shunted to Wednesday.
Ginepri has beaten Fish twice, though they've not met on grass. Plus, as good as Fish is playing right now, that's how bad Ginepri has been. After winning only one of his first five matches of 2006, Fish is 27-6 since, including two titles at Challengers. -- the latest three weeks ago on grass at nearby Surbiton.
"It's tough to say I expect to go far here," Fish said. "But whoever wins our first-round match has a real opportunity in the draw. I don't know what to expect, so I'll just play the first round like it's a final."
Better yet, play it like it's a game of Bucket.
Charles Bricker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org