An American Tennis Moment: Mardy Fish Debuts His New Top US Rank. (But did you see Andy Roddick Caddying?)

Mardy Fish

REPORTING FROM HOUSTON — Andy Roddick wore the white jumpsuit, a No. 23 on this chest, green ballcap and sunglasses, and he lugged the golf bag as the caddy for Zach Johnson Wednesday in the Par 3 contest at Augusta National. It was the day before the Masters.

On the 9th hole, Johnson allowed Roddick to hit the tee shot.

“My hands are shaking,’’ Roddick said. “I can barely put the tee in the ground.’’

It became a buzz moment for tennis. Roddick has a way, just by being Roddick, of bringing attention to himself and to his game. (It doesn’t hurt that he’s married to Brooklyn Decker, Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover model). And tennis can use the attention.

So in the best interest of tennis, I shouldn’t begrudge Roddick of another moment.

But I do.

Someone else should be having tennis’ moment. It’s tonight in Houston, the marquee match at the U.S. Clay Court Championship. Quietly, Mardy Fish will be having a personal moment, I guess, when he plays Albert Ramos of Spain.

It will be first time Fish plays as the top-ranked American.

“I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t have a nice ring to it,’’ he said. “But it’s really tough to feel like I’m the No. 1 American, to be honest. You could put Andy’s career on top of mine probably 10 times.’’

That’s what helps to make the moment.

Roddick’s career has been much bigger than Fish’s. He has been the face of American men’s tennis for nearly a decade. But now, Roddick has fallen in the world rankings to No. 14. Fish is 11, and will reach the top 10 for the first time if he wins this tournament.

Andy Roddick, caddy/No. 2 ranked American tennis player

You should hear how Fish, now 29, talks about being No. 1. He how he values it.

He went through the early part of his career with talent, but not maturity or right work ethic. Through injury, marriage, age, he found what he needed, fixed his diet, lost over 30 pounds, became a professional.

He talks about his father – “a tennis dork’’ — sending him emails with  the names of past No. 1 Americans through history. Fish’s name is on the list now.

It always will be.

Billie Jean King wrote to congratulate him. Roddick texted him, a light-hearted challenge:

“So you passed me. Congratulations and make no mistake: I plan on taking it back.’’

Fish’s response? “It’s probably yours anyway.’’

Will Roddick take it back? Maybe so. But I know this: Fish deserves to be ahead of Roddick. He is the best American now.

If it all seems to be in pencil to Fish, easily erased, it shouldn’t.

It’s a beautiful thing when someone finds greatness in himself, if that’s what Fish has done. It’s especially true when it comes late, and the result of hard work. He certainly has made the most of himself.

But now he faces questions and responsibilities that go with being No. 1. With Roddick out of the lead spot, we have someone else to ask why American tennis is so bad.

Kidding.

Sort of.

But Americans demand that their best player win majors. Can Fish do that?

“I’ve never been past the quarterfinals of a Slam,’’ he said. “(The semis) would be a huge goal for me, putting myself in that position. That would be two matches (from winning). That’s pretty close.’’

His point is that he has beaten the top players he would see in the semis of a major. Getting there, he figures, means he has a chance.

See how he can’t come straight out and say he can win a major? But he’s trying.

He said he has no idea how high his ceiling is, or whether he might be there already.

It’s all new to Fish, and he doesn’t have the champion’s air and doesn’t know where he’s going. But it’s proud moment for him to be where he is.

Can he have his moment without demands? Roddick never did. He was supposed to take the torch from Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.

Fish won’t have that sort of burden.

For now, his focus is on staying on his diet and finding consistency for the first time in his career. It’s not all real yet.
But what does it mean to be the face of American tennis? I asked him if he’s ready for the responsibility.

“Probably not,’’ he said. “I’m not sure what to expect. I’m not sure how it will be.

“Andy – for better or for worse for him – is always going to be That Guy. . .He has been ahead of me our entire lives.’’

Not now. But there was Roddick, as a caddy, making news. Fish offers zero of the spotlight-gathering that Roddick delivers to tennis.

So maybe it isn’t the best thing for American tennis to have Fish at No. 1. That’s OK.

Maybe he’ll grow into it. Maybe he won’t.

Or maybe this is just a nice moment of validation, no matter how long it lasts, for a nice guy. Too bad something like that doesn’t sell.

TOP AMERICAN PLAYERS SINCE 1973, AND FIRST TIME THEY REACHED TOP OF U.S. RANKINGS (according to the ATP World Tour)

Mardy Fish                          2011
James Blake                       2006
Andy Roddick                    2003
Pete Sampras                    1992
Jim Courier                         1991
Brad Gilbert                        1990
Michael Chang                  1989
Andre Agassi                      1988
John McEnroe                   1980
Jimmy Connors                 1973
Stan Smith                          1973

About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

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