Fish Carries Flag for U.S. And Faces Djokovic
Posted by Michael F.Blackburn Sr. on August 16, 2011
Published: August 13, 2011
By GREG BISHOP
MONTREAL — The best American tennis player at the moment, the highest ranked, the most consistent, is not Andy Roddick, John Isner or either of the Williams sisters. It is a 29-year-old journeyman who once nearly ate himself into early retirement.
Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press
Mardy Fish, now the highest-ranked U.S. tennis player.
The best American tennis player at the moment is Mardy Fish.
On Saturday at the Rogers Cup, Fish advanced to his third straight tournament final, at the expense of the Serbian Janko Tipsarevic, another tennis reclamation project who will climb into the top 20 next week. The two have much in common. Both showed promise as juniors. Both failed to meet perhaps unrealistic expectations. And both have played the best tennis of their lives this hardcourt season.
Fish dispatched Tipsarevic in short order, 6-3, 6-4, to advance to Sunday’s final, where he will face Novak Djokovic. The top-ranked Djokovic improved to 52-1 this season and positioned himself to become the first man to win five Masters 1000 tournaments in a season by defeating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who trailed, 6-4, 3-0, when he retired because of an arm injury.
Fish battered Tipsarevic with the varied game that marked his rise to a career-high No. 8 ranking, with an old-school serve-and-volley style, with stinging backhands and flat, low returns. Now one win from his first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 triumph — the highest level other than the Grand Slams — Fish has impressed analysts, his coach, the crowd at Uniprix Stadium and, perhaps most of all, himself.
“I had one hiccup, one bad game,” he said. “Obviously, over all, I was extremely pleased with the way I played.”
For David Nainkin, Fish’s South African-born coach, this summer in general and this tournament in particular represent the culmination of a two-year transformation project. In 2009, Fish weighed 203 pounds, heavy by tennis standards. Pizza, he said this week, ranked among his greatest weaknesses.
The weight led to knee surgery, which led to changes in diet and lifestyle, which led to 30 pounds vanishing. The slimmer Fish, Nainkin said, could run faster and for longer stretches, could at once better ground out marathon points and attack the net with more aggression. “I saw his commitment, the way he changed his attitude, his work ethic,” Nainkin said, and he meant starting in 2009. “He changed the whole program. That, coupled with his talent, he was too good not to be in the top 10.”
Fish won this year in Atlanta, made the final in Los Angeles, even advanced to the Wimbledon quarterfinals. Here, the tournament opened wide for him, with fourth-ranked Andy Murray and second-ranked Rafael Nadal losing early on the same side of the draw. Fish’s performance Saturday looked, to the coach and ESPN analyst Darren Cahill, like the Fish everyone expected in 2003. Beyond the weight loss, Cahill said Fish showcased more strategy in recent weeks: a better ability to solve problems and a game suited perfectly for a hardcourt season in which Fish captured 11 of his last 12 matches.
“Maybe a little bit of success came easy for him,” Cahill said. “When you get around a 15-to-30-or-40 ranking, you’re making a pretty good living, everything is good, and you don’t want to rock the boat.”
The more Fish wins, the higher he rises in the rankings, the more he must assume the mantle as the best American player in professional tennis, at least right now. He will be the highest-seeded American when the United States Open begins this month.