from Tennis Week:
There's Something About Mardy
Photo By Susan Mullane
By Brad Falkner
Donning a trucker baseball cap
with the brim pulled down low, a well worn un-tucked shirt, slightly faded jeans and a few days’ stubble, an incognito Mardy Fish saunters through the sea of gamblers, tennis fans and the general public at the Mohegan Sun entertainment complex. He is asked to sign a handful of autographs, which he manages with his usual ease.
It becomes quite clear that he is a confident young man who has a habit of not taking himself or others too seriously. On the tennis court, Fish takes no prisoners. Off it, anything goes. He is, in some respects, a unique blend of two of Hollywood’s better-known detectives: part Ace Ventura, as played by Jim Carrey, part "Dirty" Harry Callahan, Clint Eastwood’s most famous role. Compared with his peers, he is not as outgoing with strangers as Andy Roddick, but he is not as shy as Robby Ginepri. The most "Fish"-y of the other young Americans is his current doubles partner and best friend, James Blake.
Fish has not received nearly the media attention of Roddick or Blake, yet he has a higher ranking than Blake and has possibly more in the natural tennis talent department than both of his Davis Cup teammates. A smooth striker of the ball, he is loose and limber throughout his stokes. He is an adroit serve-and-volleyer, who is equally comfortable rallying from the backcourt. His two-handed backhand is a formidable weapon with which he can end points quickly. Like Justine Henin-Hardenne, he has improved his weaker forehand wing considerably during the past year. Fish’s serve has been an ace up his sleeve. Though he’s not often mentioned in the same breath as Roddick, Taylor Dent, Mark Philippoussis and Wayne Arthurs — some of the game’s biggest servers — in 2003, Fish ranked second (to Roddick) in first serve points won, and finished fifth in aces.
"He’s got an unbelievable serve, especially his first serve," says Roger Federer, the world No. 1 and 2003’s No. 3 ace man. "It’s very tough to read. He hits a lot of aces. He has an all-around game and an all-surface game as well."
It is generally accepted that serve-and-volley tennis requires a longer gestation period than the typical baseline game. Thus, by the time Fish’s game fully matures, Roddick, Blake, Ginepri and Dent may well be left in the dust. Fish will have more reliable firepower at his disposal than the other four combined. Dent cannot stay healthy long enough to ride any sufficient momentum, Blake’s backhand and serve continue to let him down on the big points, Roddick is vulnerable to burnout and Ginepri, while the hardest working of the crew off the court, lacks consistency in his game.
"You know," Federer begins, "I just think he needs a little more time. Because he’s got a big game, he needs to know what he has to do. He has a coach, and he will teach him what to do."
Having surpassed most all of the other young Americans in the rankings, Roddick is the last hurdle for Fish to clear. Having spent a full year practicing together in high school, Fish knows Roddick’s game inside and out. The 150 mph serve and lethal forehand might intimidate some, but not Mardy. "I know — and I’m sure he knows — that I know him a lot better than everybody else does out here (on tour)," Fish says. "I think he knows that he doesn’t scare me. I definitely respect his game, but I definitely think that I can beat him."
Fish defeated Roddick in their first matchup as pros, 7-6(4), 4-3 ret. (twisted left ankle), at Delray Beach in March 2003, although Roddick has won all three encounters since. Fish’s next shot at "A-Rod" could come on the slow European red clay.
With the clay court season right around the corner, Fish will need to exercise patience. He and the other Americans did not grow up as dirtballers and have struggled in recent years to pick up wins. But Brad Gilbert, Roddick’s coach, believes that of all the Americans, Fish is the most natural on clay.
"It’s not his best surface," Gilbert says, "but he has a big serve on any surface. He moves better on the dirt than the hard court because he slides so well. He stays well-balanced through the shot."
Fish’s critics have cited a lack of speed and a poor off-court work ethic as his Achilles heel. He can have difficulty changing directions quickly, which in the past has forced him to go for low-percentage winners instead of keeping the ball in play. However, in an effort to gain strength and increase his fitness, Fish has sought out the help of fitness sage Pat Etcheberry.
"I suggested to Mardy after Wimbledon that he get a full-time trainer; he went and did that," notes U.S. Davis Cup Captain Patrick McEnroe. "He has worked hard. I think that he can take it to another level. I think he’s the type of player where you don’t want to overwork him. He likes to be relaxed. He’s got a big game, he’s got a big serve and so he does not need to be a sort of ‘work’ kind of guy like a Jim Courier. I think the stronger he gets physically, he’s just going to be that much tougher to beat."
Fish’s sharp wit, playful sense of humor and penchant for practical jokes have earned him a reputation as a prankster among his peers and members of the press. During Roddick’s press conference at the 2003 Tennis Masters Cup in Houston for finishing as the year-end No. 1, Fish, who did not qualify for Masters Cup, ambushed his buddy in the interview room and doused him with two bottles of champagne. This sort of tomfoolery has been perceived by some as a sign that Fish is not focused or serious enough ever to be No. 1, an interpretation that has gotten back to the 22-year-old.
"After watching one of Mardy’s press conferences, I asked him why he was so serious," Blake recalls. "He said that he didn’t want to be known as the tour prankster. It’s tough because people don’t want you to be boring, but if you have a little fun, then you are not serious enough."
Former ATP pro Kelly Jones, who was once the world’s No. 1 doubles player, has been honing Fish’s immense talent for the past year and a half. Back in the day, Jones played a game similar to Fish’s, and the two have clicked on and off the court. Jones believes that keeping things fun is the key to their success.
"The generation today is not the same as when Courier played," says Jones, his time at No. 1 in doubles having overlapped with Courier’s time at No. 1 in singles. "Mardy does things the way that he likes to do them, and I help him to go in the direction that he wants to go. He likes to have fun; he does not like things to be too serious."
This past February at the Siebel Open, during his semifinal match against Andre Agassi, Fish displayed the sort of moxie normally associated with the dominating players of yore. A second set fist pump from Fish to his coach was misinterpreted by Agassi, who responded to the gesture with a retaliatory fist pump of his own after winning a game point. When asked about the incident after the match Fish boldly responded, "Did it look like it bothered me? I won like six straight games after that; it fired me up. It made me want to beat him even more. Obviously he thought that I was fist-pumping at him, which was totally untrue. I was fist-pumping at my coach. I’ve never fist-pumped anybody before; why would I do it to Andre Agassi?"
Someone suggested a fist pump might be a means of trying to intimidate an opponent.
"Maybe and who knows," Fish said. "Maybe that’s what he was trying to accomplish in giving me the fist pump like that; maybe he was trying to intimidate me a little bit. I could definitely see players going out playing a guy like that, getting down an early break and saying ‘This guy’s too good. I’m never going to beat him.’ "
Just not Fish. He defeated Agassi, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, to earn a spot in the final against Roddick, who might as well be his brother, considering how close the two native Midwesterners became as juniors.
Fish was born in Edina, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis, and moved to Vero Beach, Fla., with his family when he was 4. The son of a modest, hard-working and gifted tennis teaching pro, Fish was exposed to the finer points of hitting a tennis ball at the tender age of 2. Yet his father, Tom, was careful not to push the game on his young prodigy. Tom and wife Sally’s Midwest values fueled the strongly knit Fish family nucleus. Both parents carefully nurtured a healthy balance between the grind of junior tennis and a proper childhood.
"We always told the kids that if they felt like they were getting burned out," Sally says, "to not think about tennis and take some time off."
Tom steered his son’s game until the age of 15, when they both recognized that Mardy was ready to make a serious commitment to the game and decided it was time for him to train full-time in an academy setting. They chose Saddlebrook, in Wesley Chapel, Fla.
After one year of fine-tuning his game at Saddlebrook, Fish moved to Boca Raton to train under coach Stanford Boster as part of a traveling team. He attended Boca Raton Preparatory School, where he played both tennis and basketball alongside another kid, like himself, with a competitive streak a mile wide: Roddick. Fish spent the year living with the Roddick family.
"Mardy’s room was across the hall from mine," Roddick recalls. "We were competitive in a friendly way about everything. We used to see who could get to school the fastest and who could finish a test first. He had a Mustang, and I had an old Blazer; so you can probably figure out who’d get there first. We were like brothers. We would fight, and then we’d walk out of the house holding hands three minutes later."
Fish’s junior results were impressive, but not spectacular. When he was still living with his parents in Vero Beach at age 14, he failed to qualify for the junior national championships at Kalamazoo, Mich. Afterward, he made a simple declaration to himself, but for all to see. In permanent black magic marker, he drew a large arrow on his white bedroom door. Just above it, he wrote the word "Zoo" in big, bold black letters. Young Mardy’s single-minded focus on this lofty goal paid off a year later. He not only qualified for Kalamazoo, but reached the semifinals as the 31st seed. In 1999, he advanced to the final of the National 18s, losing to Phillip King. At 17, Fish decided he was going to skip college and give the pro tour a shot.
Fish’s initial professional progress was sluggish. Along with Jeff Morrison, Brian Vahaly, Robert Kendrick, Ginepri and the Blake brothers (James and Thomas), Fish spent his first few years grinding it out in the minor leagues, playing the futures and challenger circuit with less than stellar results. But by the second half of 2002, he began to find his form and finished in Top 100 in singles and doubles for the first time, winning a personal-best 11 matches on the ATP circuit and going 25-6 in challengers.
By 2003, Fish had finally found his rhythm, beating former world No. 1 Carlos Moya twice in a one-week period, knocking off former No. 1 Marcelo Rios to reach his first ATP final at Delray Beach, upsetting former Top 5 player Sebastien Grosjean in Miami and reaching the Nottingham final on grass by defeating defending champion and former Top 5 Jonas Bjorkman. Six days later at Wimbledon, Fish became the only man to take a set off Federer, who was on his way to winning the championship.
"I played an unbelievable set, that set that I took off him at Wimbledon," Fish says. "I don’t really remember that much about how he was playing [tactically]. I mean, I remember that he was playing great. So as far as that set, that was the best set I ever played, and I only won 6-4." Federer defeated Fish 6-3, 6-1, 4-6, 6-1.
Flushed with confidence after his Wimbledon encounter with Federer, Fish produced the best result of his career, to that point, at the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters, the ATP Tennis Masters Series event in Cincinnati. He marched all the way to the final, upending some of the game’s biggest hitters: Wimbledon runner-up Philippoussis; David Nalbandian, the 2002 Wimbledon runner-up; and Australian Open runner-up Rainer Schuettler. In the final, Fish lost a heartbreaking 4-6, 7-6(3), 7-6(4) masterpiece to his old roommate Roddick without losing his serve in the match.
Fish appeared poised to make a serious run for the U.S. Open title, but ran into the pesky Karol Kucera in the second round. The Slovak bounced Fish from Flushing in straight sets. Fish rebounded quickly, however, as a member of the U.S. Davis Cup team facing the Slovak Republic in the World Group Playoff. After Roddick lost to Dominik Hrbaty, Fish saved the tie with a four-set triumph over Kucera – on clay. Fish then closed out the season by capturing his first career singles title in Stockholm.
Fish knows the process of climbing the ladder in tennis, setting challenging, yet achievable goals. And like his days as a junior, he continues to reach his goals.
"I set a few goals last year," he says. "By the end of the year, I wanted to be Top 50, and I got that by just before Wimbledon. Then I set another goal to be seeded by the U.S. Open, and I got that just before the Open. (He was the No. 24 seed.) Then I set another goal to be Top 20 by the end of the year and I got that."
Fish ended 2003 ahead of the young American pack in a big way, finishing at No. 20 (after peaking at No. 19 the week after his Stockholm win), ahead of Ginepri (No. 30), Dent (No. 33) and Blake (No. 37).
"Kelly and I set some goals this year," Fish says. "To make the Masters Cup would be awesome."
Fish has had a disappointing start in 2004, with the exception of his romp to the final in San Jose. He lost in the first round of the Australian Open — despite not dropping his serve — to 6-foot-10 Ivo Karlovic. Fish went to Uncasville, Conn., for the first round of Davis Cup in the supporting role of sparring partner to Roddick and Ginepri. But he demonstrated the maturity and character of a true contender, which paid off when McEnroe picked Fish over Vincent Spadea for the quarterfinal team.
"I told Mardy that he was not going to play in the (first round) tie," McEnroe recalls, "but that I would like him to come in case something happened to one of the guys. He called me back 15 minutes later and said, ‘I want to be part of the team and I think it will be good for me.’ He and I got out every morning before the rest of the guys showed up and worked on a few things. That just showed his commitment. He really wants to be a fixture on the team. It showed me a lot: how he has grown up, how much he loves Davis Cup and how he was committed to it even though he was not going to play."
Many tennis pundits anticipate that the close-knit kinship of the young Americans will evaporate as they continue to vie for the select few positions on the U.S. Davis Cup squad. That might have been true in the Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang era because those players were all in the Top 10 together and at one point even shared the Top 6, a phenomenon that might never be seen again. The current crop of U.S. players is good, but these players will not be rubbing elbows in the Top 5.
"You guys (the media) like to make a big deal about that," says Fish. "Just because these guys are my friends doesn’t mean that I don’t compete as hard; I probably try even harder against them. As for Davis Cup, sure we all want to play on the team, but I’m not resentful toward the guys on the team if I don’t make it."
Winning a Grand Slam tournament title or bringing home the Davis Cup could be just the boost that catapults Fish into the Top 10. For Federer and Boris Becker, their big break outs occurred at Wimbledon. Patrick Rafter’s career blossomed in Davis Cup.
Wherever it happens for Fish, he is intent on coming away with his friendships in tact.
In the locker room at the Siebel Open, Fish is asked how he measures himself against other tennis players. He responds nonchalantly, "By height." Blake, who wins the doubles title with Fish, recognizes the moment and chimes in, "You know, I’m no slouch myself." It is as if they have done this many times before.
"Don’t sell yourself short," Fish replies, continuing the dialogue from the classic ’80s film ‘Caddyshack,’ "You’re a tremendous slouch."
Brad Falkner is a regular contributor to Tennis Week and TennisWeek.com, while also working for The Tennis Channel.