The feelgood story that is Mardy Fish just keeps feeling better and better. He is into the top 10 now, won in Atlanta, and is heading straight for the finals again this week in Los Angeles. The problem with Fish is this:
How much should we buy in? How far can he take this?
Up to now, his story is about his newfound maturity and commitment late in his career, his weight loss and commitment to fitness. It was a cute story when he passed Andy Roddick in the rankings this spring to become the top-ranked American. Roddick wrote him a note of congratulations and said he’s coming back to reclaim that ranking.
He is the best American.
For now, no other American man can win a major championship. Can Fish? The stars would have to align.
He is rolling through the first part of the U.S. hard court season, leading up to the U.S. Open. But Americans have been duped for years by believing in Roddick. And if they’re going to buy into Fish, it would be nice to know that he’s buying in, too.
“Andy, in my opinion, is always going to be top dog of our generation,’’ said Fish, who will play Igor Kunitsyn in the quarters Friday night. “It’s hard to think that just because of four or five or six months that I’m ahead of him, you can say that over a 10-year period I’ve had a better career. That’s not accurate.
“He’s gone through a lot more stress as far as (questions about) why American tennis isn’t better. He’s had the brunt of the questions for the most part, so I’m happy to maybe take a little bit on my shoulders.’’
Well, he’s right. Roddick has been the face of American men’s tennis for nearly a decade. And Fish just seems like a nice enough guy to feel a little sheepish about passing Roddick. He’s willing to take a back seat.
Is that good? Is he doing it to keep the pressure off, the way Rafael Nadal keeps saying that Roger Federer is best?
I don’t think so. It’s possible that Fish is just too nice. And too nice isn’t going to win the U.S. Open.
It is a fair standard to expect the best American player to contend for the national championship. I’m just not sure Fish sees himself as the best. So far, he is just — gee whiz — happy to be reaching new heights.
I’m just asking about how much to believe, and also about when he’s fair game for criticism. Not that there is anything to criticize him for yet.
He had his best French Open, reached the quarters of Wimbledon before losing to Nadal in four sets. But it didn’t seem that that he believed, during the match, that he could win it. And afterward, he was more mesmerized by the happiness of reaching the big stage than angry that he had lost there, though he did say this:
“I haven’t broken through, and haven’t had that huge win at a major. I know that. I know that I’m playing well enough to make the quarterfinals of Grand Slams and beat top-10 players.
“You know, I’m lacking that one huge result, that one big one where it opens everyone’s eyes and says, `Wow, I can’t believe he beat him. That’s a really good win.’ I don’t have that.’’
He has climbed levels that it appeared he would never climb. Fish, now 29, is ranked No. 9. Against the top three players, Novak Djokovic, Nadal and Federer, he is 1-18 lifetime. But he has an equal-, or winning-record against every other player ranked ahead of him. He was 3-0 against No. 4 Andy Murray last year.
Fish might just be playing at his ceiling. But he has developed a thought-out attack on the court. He has power and size, and he also works points unlike the stereotype of an American player. Sometimes in trouble, though, he starts going for too much.
That’s a matter of belief.
In April, at the U.S. Clay Court championship in Houston, I asked him about whether he can win a major. He said he could reach a quarterfinal or semi, and that he knows he has beaten some of the top players he would see there.
It was his way of backing into the answer that yes, he might be able to win one. Maybe. Possibly. Some day.