I want Fat Mardy back.
There, I said it. That's it for one of the dominant narratives of this summer of tennis, the last word on a subject that, at least in American tennis circles, has been as inescapable as talking about the weather, the oil spill, the proposed Ground Zero mosque. If you didn't know better, you might swear that what svelte Mardy, with legs so skinny that I recently mistook him for Gael Monfils, was really angling to land this summer was not a Grand Slam title but a whopper of an endorsement deal with Weight Watchers International. I can just see him on late night TV, arm-in-arm with the Duchess of Po- York, Sarah Ferguson.
We can fill the subsequent lull in the conversation with speculations on how much better Mardy Fish might do if he put on a few more pounds of muscle, re-developed a modest little front porch, and started to throw, oh, about 30 more pounds behind that sledgehammer serve and rekindled his willingness to go lurching to the net behind it. Bring back Fat Mardy. I miss the strange beauty of the inconsistent and unpredictable.
Alright, I overstate the case for emphasis. But if you watched Fish lose to Novak Djokovic on Arthur Ashe Stadium this afternoon, you know what I'm driving at. Fish played a surprisingly passive match, as if he were bent on proving that the only difference between he and David Ferrer is 12 inches of elevation, 30 pounds, and a headband worthy of a Mescalero Apache.
Fish played Djokovic defensively, and often from a position so far behind the baseline that Djokovic had plenty of time to load, lock and fire. The straight set scores (6-3, 6-4, 6-1) provide a vivid summary of the match. Fish fell behind quickly and irreversibly; he made the best push of which he was capable, all things considered, in the second set (down a break at 2-3, Fish had Djokovic serving at 0-40, but let him slip away). After that, what oxygen remained in Fish's gills slowly dissapated.
I talked with Nick Bollettieri (here's the video) right after the match, and his impressions were similar; he pointed out that engaging in behind-the-baseline duels with Novak Djokovic is suicidal for a guy like Fish. Just because you lose 30 pounds, it doesn't mean you're gifted with the retrieving skills of a Rafael Nadal, or a Federer-esque ability to transition from defense to offense. Getting thinner hasn't made Fish any less perceptive or articulate, and he knows what we're talking about here. "Sometimes, I think I sort of get into a rut—it's so much fun for me now to be able to sort of run down shots and play a little defense. I do that too much, and I'm aware of it, for the most part.
"But he (Djokovic) plays defense as good as anyone, and so he's better than me at it, for sure. That was the case. I tried to, you know, get to the net, tried to stay more, you know, to be a little more aggressive towards the middle part of the match. I just didn't . . . execute."
Fish is an astute player and seems to understand to truth of Heraclitis' maxim, Character is Destiny, and how it might apply to the physical character of a player. He freely admits that he's not even sure where this new body will take him, beyond on a longer road to the funeral parlor. "I've always said that I'm not sure where I'll end up as far as, ah, 12 months from now—where I'll be ranked. But I know I feel like a completely different person. I always had the ability to beat a lot of good players, but not consistently. I feel like consistently I can do it now, over the long haul. but I've got to do a better job. Just sort of figure out the exact strategy that I want, and I'll hopefully figure that out over the course of the next few months, or however long it takes me to sort of find that happy medium between staying aggressive and playing defense."
The emerging theme is that this fixation on fitness at age 29, a tennis player's version of that recently divorced 62-year old insurance broker's sudden decision to get hair plugs, a leather jacket, and a yellow Corvette, creates more challenges than it solves, even when things work out for the better in the long run. Fish re-invented his body, now he has to find the game most appropriate to it. It's a two-stage process, but that's nothing to get discouraged about. He already did the heavy lifting, dropping those 30 pounds that many of the rest of us are content to lug around. The rest is a matter of vigilance, discipline, and the fun of drawing up a new set of X's and O's.
In tennis, one man's issues are another man's meal ticket, so give Djokovic credit for taking advantage of the complications in Fish's situation. The No. 3 seed appears to be hitting the ball as well as ever, but you could have said that about him at the French Open, as well as Wimbledon, and all he did at those tournaments was sprinkle water on the growing theme that his game arcs upwards but begins to descend at exactly the wrong time. If he were a basketball player, he'd be throwing up three-pointers at the buzzer, only to watch them glance off the front of the rim as a collective groan rises from the "home" side of the gym.
Djokovic is an odd guy. He seems extremely content being exactly who he is, which in general is a wonderful way to go through life, if not Grand Slam tournaments. He's a master reciter of facts. Does anyone else detect a smidgen of delusion and an unhealthy (for an aspiring No. 1) dose of objectivity in this analysis: "But even in Wimbledon I was playing really well every match up to the semifinals. French Open, as well, I was playing great, and then two sets to love up and then I lost that match. But, you know, it's important to perform your best tennis at Grand Slams, and this was my aim for 2010. It's gonna be my aim for the next year. It's the most important events, and it's where you want to perform the best tennis you can. It's happening so far for me. I have to be happy with my results."
So here we are, with six Spanish players surviving to the round of 16 at the U.S. Open. When Fish was asked how he accounts for the Iberian invasion, he noted that tennis is hugely popular in Spain—second only to King Soccer. He also cited the early training that leaves so many players proficient on multiple surfaces, and the basic fitness of the Spanish players. "You look at these guys, you won't come across a Top 50 Spaniard who's afraid to take his shirt off in practice, and they all know they look good doing it."
You could say the same for Fish, and the trend in his recent results, if not today, testifies to the fitness divided. But I kind of miss fat Mardy, even if the newer, sleeker model is destined to prove more able.
After 16 consecutive years of always showing up at Wimbledon, winning five titles along the way, Venus Williams pulled out of the grass-court Grand Slam tournament Tuesday, citing a lower back injury.
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