MASON, Ohio — Many of his fellow countrymen might not recognize his face or his name, but Mardy Fish insists he’s fine with that.
It actually has helped his rise in the tennis world from consistently strong veteran to upper-echelon elite.
The Los Angeles resident is playing the best tennis of any American on the men’s tour, and has been for most of the year. A string of victories and deep runs in tournaments has vaulted him into uncharted territory in the world rankings. He currently sits at No. 8, amid a slew of European players, and he’s the only American in the top 20.
Fish is seeded eighth for the U.S. Open, which begins Monday in New York.
“I don’t necessarily feel like I’ll be the top American,” Fish said. “I will maybe be ranked the highest. I’ve sort of gone under the radar pretty comfortably and haven’t had to answer too many critics.”
Since then, the title of top American has been up for grabs, and the 29-year-old Fish hasn’t disappointed, overtaking Roddick in the rankings in April. Yet Fish still considers Roddick, now ranked No. 21, the favorite.
“I can’t put my U.S. Open record against his, not even close,” Fish said.
Whether he acknowledges it or not, Fish has the skill and drive that can gain him admission into the top tier of tennis royalty, said Jim Courier, captain of the United States’ Davis Cup team.
“It’s new for him. That’s something he’s settling into right now and that will take some time,” said Courier, former world No. 1. “He’s looked up the rankings at Andy for the bulk of his career, and that’s only changed recently so it is different for him to feel that he deserves that mantle. But he does. The rankings don’t lie.”
Fish’s assault on the rankings date to 2009, when arthroscopic knee surgery cut his season short. He used the time off to get into better shape, dropping more than 30 pounds from his 6-foot-2, 203-pound frame during the recovery period.
Once slimmed down, Fish put a new emphasis on fitness and speed, relying less on his forehand power to force shots. He found he could better outlast opponents with defense to win rallies.
“Without the knee surgery,” Courier said, “I think Mardy would have just been cruising along, ranked somewhere between 25 and 75 in the world, maybe playing some doubles, but not really being the impact player he is now.”
The explosive lateral movement that is such an important part of Fish’s revamped game has caught the attention of opponents.
“He’s moving much better than before from the baseline with less unforced errors,” world No. 2 Rafael Nadal said. “He’s a very, very dangerous player.”
Nadal fell victim to Fish’s endurance in the quarterfinals of last week’s Western & Southern Open in Mason. After a nearly four-hour battle that drained Nadal the day before, Fish dispatched the Spaniard in straight sets.
The new Fish, who sometimes refers to his pre-surgery days as his “previous career,” picked up a pair of tournament victories in 2010 and has kept cruising this summer. With a semifinals appearance in Mason, Fish finished with the best record during the U.S. Open summer series, including a victory at the Atlanta Tennis Championships in July.
The world’s third-ranked player, Roger Federer of Switzerland, said he doesn’t think Fish has flown under anyone’s radar for quite some time. Fish is in the meat of a very solid year, he said.
“It’s always nice seeing Americans take advantage of the American summer or the American tournaments,” Federer said. “This is where they’re most dangerous.”
The U.S. Open, in which Fish will meet Tobias Kamke in the opening round, could be Fish’s best opportunity to finally break into the Grand Slam winners club. The hard-court event plays right into his new strength: speed.
His best finish in New York in previous years was a quarterfinal loss in 2008.
But with each match he has won leading up to the U.S. Open, Fish’s recognition has mounted, and with that comes expectations.
“It’s pressure I’ve never had to deal with before,” Fish said. “So I don’t know how things will go yet. … I’ll try to make it as regular an event as possible, even though obviously it’s not.
“I’d love to get to the point where I can say this is a coin flip,” Fish added about his chances of beating other top-caliber tennis players. “I’m not sure I’m there; I’ve been very candid about that. But that’s where I want to be.”