The Road To Redemption
by Robert Davis|
Last year, Mardy Fish resurrected his career; realising that athletic ability was not enough to survive on the ATP World Tour. By maturing into a true professional, the American was able to regain his Top 20 ranking.
Mardy Fish tried his best to put on a brave face. Still he could not stop the tears from streaming down. The red, white and blue flag being raised for the gold medal winner on the podium at the Athens Olympics was not the Stars and Stripes. And the national anthem that was playing was definitely not the Star Spangled Banner. Rather the Himno Nacional de Chile. It all seemed like a bad dream to the young American. Less than an hour earlier, he was on the verge of making it a dream come true. A sharp pain seared through his body. It was greater than any injury he had ever experienced. It was the nasty, brutal kind. The tennis gods had played a cruel joke on the talented Mr. Fish.
"The Olympics were very painful. It was one of my greatest highs, but it also became one of my greatest lows."
“He came so close to winning being up two sets to one,” says Tom Fish, Mardy’s father. “It was heartbreaking to watch. Though, for me he did fantastic. When he left for Athens, he said, ‘I am going to come back with a medal.’ And I am thinking, wow, good attitude son.”
It was a lofty goal for someone who was ranked in the 30s at the time.
“The Olympics were very painful,” confesses Fish. “It was one of my greatest highs, but it also became one of my greatest lows. When it came time for Beijing, I did not want to go through that pain again. I think that I have matured since then, and I just hope that I am in good form and fortunate enough to be selected for London .”
Trace Fish’s career and you would have a sketch that looks a bit like the Rocky Mountains of Colorado; high rising peaks mixed with sheer drop-offs. In the fall of 2009, a severe knee injury backed Fish into a corner. There was no way out. He would have to commit or quit. Fish chose to commit.
The results speak for themselves, a career-high ranking of No. 16. And with wins over Andy Murray (Miami, Queen’s Club and Cincinnati), Andy Roddick (Atlanta and Cincinnati), John Isner (Atlanta); and titles at Newport and Atlanta. Oh yes, there was the matter of his Davis Cup heroics in Colombia. Just exactly when Fish started putting in the hard yards and stopped Super-Sizing his meals is not known. But most figure it came about somewhere between marriage and the knee surgery.
“Resurrection and commitment are the words that first spring to mind when I think of Mardy's career,” says Jim Courier. “Mardy has really blossomed and matured in the past couple of years, which is a credit both to him and surely to the influence of his wife. He experienced the serious knee surgery that threatened his career and then firmly committed himself to getting fit for the first time in his career. It was a career resurrection.”
“There was not an exact moment where I said, ‘This is it’,” admits Fish. “It kind of built up and with the knee surgery and not being able to work out at all with the stitches, it just hit me. I had a lot of questions. I had been fooling myself. I thought I was in shape, but I really was not. Basically, I was too heavy to be running around a tennis court.
"Basically, I was too heavy to be running around a tennis court."
“I wasn't surprised at all about his commitment,” says good friend and Davis Cup teammate James Blake.
“I thought that maybe 10 pounds would be good for him," says Tom Fish. “When he lost that he said he felt good, and decided to drop another 10. And then another 10.”
After it was all said and done, Fish had shed 30 pounds. His problem had never been hitting the ball, it was getting to it. Now that was solved, he could get on with the business of winning tennis matches.
You can say a lot of things about Fish, but lack of ability is not one of them. Tennis coaches on the ATP World Tour rarely agree on anything, but one thing that anybody who has ever fed a ball to Mardy Fish agree on is his natural born talent.
“He has always been an incredible athlete,” says Tom Fish. “He did not really choose tennis until he was 15 years old. I knew he was special but did not know what sport he would choose. He was good at all of them, baseball, golf, basketball and tennis.”
“His talent was very obvious in all sports,” says Mardy’s former coach, Stanford Boster. “He is almost a scratch golfer and sometimes joked that he has chosen the wrong sport. Mardy always knew he was going to be a tennis professional. It also helped that Tom and Sally (Mardy’s parents) encouraged a professional career and his Dad was instrumental in putting the pieces of the puzzle together.”
“Outside of his talent, his greatest attribute was his belief,” continues Boster. “He could have been playing the worst tennis against a great player and somehow still believed he should win.”
Coach Kelly Jones was by Mardy’s side when he got his breakthrough on the ATP World Tour. Jones backs up Boster’s claim.
“Well the first thing is that he (Fish) believes he can beat anybody,” explains Jones. “That there is absolutely nobody he cannot beat on a given day. This is one thing that he said to me and then he went out and backed it up. And he is an exceptional athlete.”
Scott McCain was the United States Tennis Association’s men’s pro development coach when Mardy was coming through the ranks.
"Mardy was like any other teenager. He enjoyed all sports, cars, music and girls."
“I think obviously he used his talent to make his breakthrough,” says McCain. “His talent was good enough to get him to Top 20. But, today, we see a different Mardy Fish. I don’t think he is as much worried about style as he is about how he can win this particular match.”
Mardy’s father agrees.
“He has definitely grown up a ton,” says Tom Fish. “He used to try to beat players with just his sheer athletic talents and ball striking ability.”
Talk about Fish long enough and you will learn that there is Fish the tennis player, and Fish the person. The player might have had his struggles, but the person was always very popular with the boys. And the girls.
“Mardy was like any other teenager,” says Boster. “He enjoyed all sports, cars, music and girls.”
And the girls must have enjoyed Mardy. His wife, the lovely actress Stacey Gardner, gets more stares from the Centre Court crowd than Hawkeye.
“The first thing that comes to my mind with Mardy is a good time,” says Blake. “He is someone that is always making people laugh. When we were younger and playing a lot of doubles together, I remember that some of the other doubles players thought we weren't taking it seriously. Yet we played great and were trying, but we just had so much fun that we were laughing the whole time we were on the court.”
It was billed as the Battle of Bogota. A Davis Cup World Group play-off tie between Colombia and the United States of America. The warm sunny days that Bogota enjoyed all week came to end on the final day of the tie. It was a damp, grey Sunday morning when play started in the Plaza de Toros. The bullring was draped in the tricolour of the Colombian flag; yellow, red and blue. As the Colombian crowd entered the Plaza de Toros wearing sombreros, tight fitting blue jeans and leather cowboy boots, Fish entered the bullring with his ball cap pulled down low and dressed like a Ralf Lauren poster boy. However, image was the last thing on this quiet American’s mind. He might as well have entered with a hard hat and tool box for it was obvious by his demeanour and five-set win on the first day and four-set doubles win on the previous, that he was not leaving Colombia until it was 'Mission Accomplished'.
"Mardy has great variety in his game. He can adapt to the situation."
The scoreboard indicated the Americans were leading, but if synergy could talk it would say that this would be death in the afternoon for Team USA. It would not be pretty tennis, but at an altitude of 8,000-feet, it never promised to be. In addition to Santiago Giraldo and Alejandro Falla of Team Colombia, Fish was facing a clear and present danger to his mission; pressure-less tennis balls. With a forehand that looks more like a slingshot than a stroke taught from a ‘How To Play Tennis Manual’, Mardy would have to adapt to the tricky conditions. Fish went old school mixing up quick and delayed pressure so much that not even captain Patrick McEnroe knew what he would do next.
“Mardy has great variety in his game,” quipped McEnroe wisely. “He can adapt to the situation as needed.”
Early in the fourth set, there was a bit of a scare for Team USA when Fish, on a coast to coast scramble, tumbled to the court, plowing his racquet hand into the clay. The flesh on three knuckles was ripped off. With blood on his hands, and the momentum swinging towards Colombia, Fish toughened up.
“It looked worse than it was,” says Doug Spreen, Team USA trainer. “Basically, we washed it out. Mardy gritted his teeth, and went back to the front lines.”
He would need a little more than toughness to take down Santiago Giraldo who was now scrambling around the court like a terrier in heat. The match was level at two sets all.
When Giraldo broke the Fish serve at five games each, it looked like Mardy was done and dusted. With Giraldo now serving at 30-all, somebody from Team Colombia did not do their homework because Giraldo served to Fish’s backhand. Hell, even on the ATP Player Profile it says clear as day that the backhand return is Mardy’s favourite shot. Fish blistered the return for a forcing error. Break point converted proved to be Brokeback Mountain for Colombia.
"I watched every last point of Mardy's matches in Bogota and he was inspirational."
“It came down to Mardy getting the ball in the court more than anyone else,” says Berger. “Mardy brought a lot of commitment to the team without any ego. Before we had our first practice, he told us that he did not care if he does not play at all, or if he plays every match. He is here to do whatever it takes to the get the win and get back to the World Group.”
“Mardy leads by example,” says Davis Cup teammate Ryan Harrison. “You see the way he goes about preparing. Every day same routines, he gets out before everyone else. First one at breakfast, etcetera. I have learned a lot from him.”
“I watched every last point of Mardy's matches in Bogota and he was inspirational,” says new Davis Cup Captain Jim Courier. “Winning all three points in a tie puts him in rare company in US team records.”
After listening to any and all who have ever known Mardy Fish, it sounds as if all of his career he has been auditioning for a role in a Batman movie. Only he was not sure if he wanted to play the hero or the Joker. After the stunt he pulled in Bogota, how about Ironman? These days he has an entire cast of coaches singing his praises.
“Mardy has started buying shares in himself,” claims Stanford Boster.
“I did not want to leave anything in the bag for the start of the year,” said Fish. “I wanted to make sure that I did everything right preparation wise.”
Mardy’s coach, David Nainkin, believes that he is on the right track.
“Mardy is a true professional,” says Nainkin. “A lot of good years in him.”
If we have learned anything about Mardy Fish, it is that he is a multi-talented athlete who is a lot of fun to be around and who saves his best stuff for the biggest stage. Now that he has added substance to the style, it is most likely that we will be seeing a whole lot more of the talented Mr. Fish in 2011.
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