A Fish out of water no more
Two wrist surgeries kept American off the court for months. He's ready to return.
By Harvey Fialkov
January 29, 2006
DELRAY BEACH ˇ Seemingly leaner
, Mardy Fish sounded far older than 24.
"When you get injured like that and out for that long," said Fish, while applying ice to his left wrist after a practice session at the Delray Beach Tennis Center Saturday
, "it makes you realize how valuable every year is and how much you miss it, and how short tennis careers are.
"I'm already 24 and have to savor every year."
Fish is coming off two wrist surgeries and will be making his 2006 debut at the Delray Beach International Tennis Championships.
Fish noticed the legendary Andre Agassi, 35, the top seed of a 32-player field in the ITC who will take on Ricardo Mello Monday night, walking around and shook his head.
"That won't be me. Definitely," he said.
Fish, who like Agassi accepted a wild card into the ITC after missing the Australian Open because of injury, has seen his ranking plummet from a career-high 17 in 2004 to 247, out of the top 100 for the first time since 2001. His first surgery came in May after a practice session in Rome, and then during a match at Indianapolis he heard the pop again. Same wrist. Same injury.
"Week by week I waited for it to get better. What was most frustrating was I never was given a timetable," said Fish, who was 6-11 last year and finally agreed to another surgery after barely being able to hold his trademark two-handed backhand with his left hand at the U.S. Open.
"There were days and weeks I didn't want to be near the court because I knew I was four months away from playing Delray Beach, but luckily I stuck with the off-court stuff."
Fish has been training with renowned fitness guru Pat Etcheberry at Saddlebrook near his home in Tampa and has reduced his weight from 190 to 182 and his body fat from 15 to 8 percent.
"My goal was to come back a better player than when I left," said Fish, who will play Germany's Simon Greul in the first round. "I'm stronger and in much better shape and moving better. We'll see how I play after I get a few matches in."
Just like his contemporary Robby Ginepri, the knock on the 6-foot-2 Fish was that he slacked off in the conditioning department after enjoying early success in 2003 when he was ranked 20th after winning his first and only ATP singles title (at Stockholm).
"I think they both realize how much better they are when they're more fit," said Scott Humphries, Fish's coach. "Mardy needs not to be tough on himself but have a short memory until he's in match shape."
Other than No. 3-ranked Andy Roddick, his former housemate and classmate while at Boca Prep, Fish was ranked ahead of his American peers such as Ginepri (No. 18), James Blake (No. 22) and Taylor Dent (No. 31) a few years ago.
Now, he's the forgotten American
, particularly after Blake's and Ginepri's meteoric climb up the rankings last summer when they reached the quarterfinals and semifinals of the U.S. Open, respectively.
"It's a lot of what have you done for me lately, and I haven't done anything lately," said Fish, who lost the 2003 final here to Jan-Michael Gambill. "I don't worry about that kind of stuff and don't mind if people recognize me or not. I love those guys and am out there having a good time."
Fish said he took confidence from Blake's amazing comeback from a broken neck and disease that caused partial paralysis in his face and blurry vision to rise from 210 to 25 last year.
"I wanted to be with James so bad it was tough to watch on TV or check results," Fish said of his neighbor and poker pal. "James wasn't even able to hit a ball. I could do everything except hit my two-handed backhand, a shot I need.
"Sure, watching James come back so quickly and even Kimmy Clijsters the same thing from her wrist injury gives me hope that I could come back even quicker. I have to keep it in perspective.
"I remember joking with James after he won Stockholm. Now his picture is on the wall with past champions, there with me and some other guy [Thomas Johansson]."
Fish is hoping to add plenty of similar pictures before he puts down his racket for good.