It's becoming an annual summer question: Where is Mardy Fish heading? The American, who enjoyed a post-Wimbledon surge in 2010, has now cracked the Top 10 for the first time at 29 years old. But his prospects remain hard to gauge.
In the last month alone, he has experienced a career high—reaching the quarterfinals at Wimbledon — and followed it up with a near-tragic low when he lost both of his singles matches against Spain in Davis Cup. Even Fish's victory this weekend in the BBQ pit otherwise known as Atlanta, which included a straight-set lesson for his upstart countryman Ryan Harrison in the semifinals and a Houdini-esque escape against John Isner in the final, raised as many questions as it answered.
It starts at the most fundamental level, with his style of play. "What is Fish's game, exactly?" I asked myself while watching him win his second straight Atlanta title. This isn't the first time this question has crossed my mind. Tennis players can usually be categorized as defender or attacker, grinder or net-rusher. Not Fish: He's none of those things precisely. His serve is his one undeniable weapon, but he doesn't follow it to the net often or use it to set up a putaway ground stroke. And while he mostly tries to win from the baseline, Fish doesn't have the big forehand that defines so many players' games today. He loops his and uses his stronger two-handed backhand down the line to break open points; though he's very selective about when tries that as well.
Fish says that he likes to "come forward," and more than most players today, he can do that. A few times in Atlanta he showed his ability, in the middle of a rally, to read when his opponent was going to float a defensive shot back and then cut that shot off in mid-court with an athletic, improvised volley. Fish has the instincts of a net player, a rare commodity today, which makes it surprising that he doesn't put those instincts to use more often. In the final against Isner, he was content to rally, perhaps to tire the big guy out (it worked). As we know, Fish's fitness has vastly improved over the last 18 months, and this has allowed him to do two things: run down more balls and outlast his opponents. And that's how he won yesterday; while Isner staggered through the better part of the last two sets, Fish barely broke a sweat and never looked winded. In this sense, Fish's game is a microcosm of modern men's tennis and it's slow march backward, from net to baseline, from first-strike aggression to all-court steadiness and stamina.
Fish has always operated in the shadow of his old friend Andy Roddick. He still defers to Roddick as the emotional hub of the Davis Cup team and the guy who, even if he's no longer the highest-ranked player in the U.S., is still American tennis's leading man. Fish has been the beta to Roddick's alpha; he may have more all-around tennis skill than his friend, but he lacked Roddick's swagger, and his expectation of greatness — even Harrison, at 19, burns with more overt fire and desire than the lower-key Fish. Beyond his relationship with Roddick, Fish's expectations have also been tempered by the era he has played in. In most other periods, a player with his serve might believe he could make a run to a Slam final or even steal one when the rest of the world wasn't looking. Not these days; these days the quarters have to suffice. That's where Fish ran into Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon this year. In his press conference afterward, Fish didn't sound crushed; and, why, realistically, would he be? He had exceeded his past expectations of himself. "I'm certainly glad I played on a stage like that before I hang it up," Fish said after his loss to Nadal on Court 1 at Wimbledon. "This is one you really want to do well at one time. You know, I would have liked to have gone a little farther."
To take the next, difficult step upward, Fish may need to become less realistic. He did pull off an incredible comeback against Isner on Sunday, but he didn't really expect it to happen. Down 1-5 in the second-set tiebreaker, he walked around the net post on the changeover and went straight to the opposite baseline without stopping for the customary water break, even though it was 110 in the shade—Fish thought he was, literally, toast. Afterward, when the miracle had been accomplished, he (very rightly) admitted that he had been lucky. Fish should have lost the match; he played passively and let an obviously gassed Isner nearly squeak his way through the second set. While defense and endurance have gotten him to the Top 10, maybe focusing on his own strengths is what needs to come next. Fish is, as we said, more skilled than most around the net and one of the few who really is comfortable moving up in the court. Perhaps that's where his path should take him from here. Perhaps that's how he'll "go a little farther."
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Mardy Fish is right to defer to Roddick. He has passed his friend in the rankings, but he can still learn from him. He can learn what a Top 10 player can expect from himself.
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