Hobbling Fish

Tuesday, March 30, 2010 /by

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by Pete Bodo

Contemplating the recent history of Mardy Fish, our old friend Mr. Buzzkill would wave a finger, tsk-tsking, and remind him that, when it comes to your career, you take things for granted at our peril. Fish, you'll remember, was impelled to undergo knee surgery last fall. While recovering, he experienced a Eureka! moment not unfamiliar to others in his line of work. He realized he was fast approaching 30, and when he took stock of his career accomplishments and goals, he felt he could have, and still could, do better.

Others shared that opinion; Fish never seemed to approach his career with the degree of discipline that is required of top players today, at least not in the fitness department. And his susceptibility to injury is thought by some to be a reflection of a cavalier attitude toward training. It made sense, sort of, for Fish is one of those athletes whose game nicely mirrors his seemingly unhurried, casual personality. Instead of obsessing over the alignment of his water bottles or practicing for long hours in a rubber suit under a hot sun, Fish seemed old school: arrive on site, throw your bag in the corner, lace up the sneakers and see where the day takes you. 

These days, that attitude mostly takes you to the player-transportation desk.

But in the months following his surgery, Fish adopted a strict, carbohydrate-free diet and subsequently lost 27 pounds. While shedding the fat, he thought, "I've got the opportunity to try to sort of. . . resurrect - try to make a push in the next four, five. . . however many years I have left, and try to stay as healthy as I can."

In all fairness, Fish may not have been able to drop that amount of fat and replace it with lean muscle in just a few months if he had been on the tour. As he put it, "You need to eat, you need to fuel your body when you're playing. My surgery also provided me with the chance to make that effort to change things around."

Given that Fish is a rangy, 6-2 power player with terrific touch and commendable elasticity, if not the most nimble of feet, that five-year window isn't entirely unrealistic; and even if it were, Fish wasted no time in making up for lost time. He was a semifinalist in Sydney at the onset of the year, and more recently at Delray Beach. Although he lost in the first round of the Australian Open and in the second round of Indian Wells (he lost a three-setter to the same man who beat him in the 2008 final, Novak Djokovic), Fish ripped off a few quality wins here in Miami, taking down promising talent Leonardo Mayer, No. 3 seed Andy Murray, and the mercurial Feliciano Lopez.

Alas, Mr. Buzzkill joined me on the grandstand to watch Fish take on Mikhail Youzhny at a packed grandstand court at Crandon Park. It was a beautiful day for tennis, with just a bit of fitful breeze. Fish immediately fell behind 0-3, but he's not the sort to hit the panic button prematurely. He has the capacity to reel off pre-emptive winners, which comes with the territory for the impulsive. "Methodical" has never been a go-to adjective to describe Fish.

Although Fish had trouble finding the range with his serve, he looked like an utterly different player from the leonine, explosive but unpredictable man of yore. He blanketed the court on quick legs, settled into rallies when the risk of going for a placement outweighed the reward, worked points patiently and scampered enthusiastically after Youzhny's familiar explorations of all the angles and openings provided by a tennis court. As he would say later, "I just feel like a completely different person, confidence-wise, just being able to walk around feeling like an actual athlete that's in pretty good shape. . ."

But then disaster struck. Chasing a placement deep to his forehand corner in the fourth game, Fish lost his legs and landed on his backside. Almost immediately, the intense pain in his lower back traveled down his leg and within moments his left leg was numb (the immediate diagnosis was that he banged his sciatic nerve; he has no history of sciatica, so he's expected to recover fairly swiftly). Fish lost that game and called for the trainer. He took a full medical timeout and tried to play on, but after he dropped his next service game (and set), he played just one point on Youzhny's serve before calling it quits. "The pain was just excruciating, but then it went away briefly. But almost immediately after the changeover, my back began to tighten up and that was it."

Fish hobbled into the press interview room later, and pondered his fate. This is, after all, more or less his home tournament, and he reached the fourth round on only one previous occasion (2003). He came in a stronger, leaner, fitter man, and the irony of his situation was not lost on him.

"I've felt good for about a month now. Really, really good since, sort of, the Delray Beach tournament. I felt good in Indian Wells as well. I think (it's because I'm) able to play sort of a little bit different style, being able to grind out some points instead of having to go for some stupid shots or, you know, some tough shots that I probably wouldn't make anyway. 

"You know, you try to steal. . . I feel like I can steal a few more points with my legs now than before. That takes time, to be able to figure out that style of play and shots that I have never hit before in my life. . . Sort of being able to get to shots, or putting air under balls so I can stay in points. You know, fourth round is a great result. Saturday (the day Fish beat Murray) was obviously a match I'll probably never forget. So I'll take that part of it for sure, and go on to next week."

Fish is a sanguine sort; a guy who rolls with it. That will be an advantage in the coming weeks, which have never been the kind to him anyway. He's still Mardy Fish, not Rafael Nadal. Or even Andy Roddick. Or is he?

Showing that the injury hasn't affected his humor nerve, Fish said he bumped into Andy Roddick (who dodged a bullet today, coming back from 1-4, 0-40 [on his serve] deficit to overwhelm Benjamin Becker) in the locker room and told last week's Indian Wells finalist:

"You finally achieved something that I've achieved in my career - you made the finals of Indian Wells. . ."

Roddick quipped that he didn't necessarily want to win Indian Wells for himself. He wanted it because his coach (Larry Stefanki) had won it, and because Fish had been a finalist there."

There probably are more finals in Fish's past than in his future, but there are fewer cheeseburgers, curly fries and and pepperoni pizzas as well. And certainly fewer matches in which he has to go for that prayer of a backhand, or ill-advised drop shot because he can't trust his legs.

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