TOKYO — In a white shirt and hat on a sunny Tokyo afternoon, he looks like Andy Roddick, walks like Roddick, serves like Roddick, and even cocks his forehand before unloading winners, just like Roddick.
But unlike Roddick, whose season has been marred with controversy regarding his comments about the U.S. Open and the exhausting ATP tour schedule, Mardy Fish is having the best year of his career, leaping ahead of Roddick to become the highest-ranked American on the ATP Tour. Reaching his goal of breaking the top 10, Fish is finally — at age 29 — emerging from the shadow of Roddick, his best friend and former high school tennis and basketball teammate in Boca Raton, Fla..
But though he appreciates the honor, he’s taking a modest approach to being ranked above Roddick.
“Andy Roddick has always been the No. 1 guy my whole career and always will be,” Fish said last week. “I will never be able to top what he’s done: Ten years as No. 1 in the United States, winning grand slams, things I haven’t done yet. He’s really done everything I have yet to do. He’ll always be the alpha male of my generation.”
But Fish, this season, has advaced to at least the quarterfinals in 10 events, including Wimbledon, and he beat Rafael Nadal in Cincinnati. He won his sixth career title in Atlanta and reached the finals in Los Angeles and Montreal.
“He’s having a fantastic end of the season,” said Nadal, before beating Fish in straight sets in Saturday’s semifinal at the Japan Open, an event which Andy Murray won by walloping Nadal 6-0 in the third and final set Sunday.
Ranked ninth in the world coming into the Shanghai Masters this week, Fish is hoping for a strong fall season in order to qualify for the first time as one of only eight players at the season-ending tournament in London.
“I’ve always struggled mentally, to be honest, after the U.S. Open and the [Grand] Slams were done, with the rest of the season,” he said. “Maybe I wanted to be home watching football with the family and stuff. But I’ve really enjoyed being here in Japan. It’s great. The people are so nice and friendly, strangers say hello to you when you’re walking down the street. It’s a really great tournament.”
Known as a nice guy off the court, Fish is not immune to nasty moods on it. During his victory over Bernard Tomic of Australia in the Japan Open quarterfinals Friday, a plastic bag blowing around court, and an umpire’s decision to play on, unnerved Fish. His tirade lasted more than three games, as he hollered “Give me a break!” at the umpire between games.
Blowing a point, he smacked his racket off the court, as members of the Japanese imperial family sat watching in the first row.
But showing his maturity, he regained his composure, saved a key point with a wily lob and then a backhand winner down the line, and went on to win the set 6-4. Even as the fast-rising Tomic, 18, tested his patience with looping forehands and sliced backhands, Fish settled into long rallies, capping points with comfortable volleys and deft drop shots.
In a draining three-set match, Fish outlasted, both mentally and physically, a player 11 years younger.
“Fitness has been a big part of it,” he told the crowd when asked during a post-match interview to explain his recent success. “I’m working harder. I want it more. I’m older now, so I can appreciate it more.”
Perhaps more than Roddick, who won the U.S. Open in 2003 at age 21, Fish has had to overcome bad luck and injuries. After finishing the 2003 season ranked 20th and winning a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics, two surgeries on his left wrist in 2005 nearly ended his career, and food poisoning knocked him out of Wimbledon in 2006.
Fish reached the quarters at the Australian Open in 2007, only to lose to Roddick. But in 2010, Fish finally beat Roddick for the first time in eight meetings, and went on to win Atlanta. He beat Roddick again in Cincinnati and rose to No. 25 in the rankings, as he lost 25 pounds and became more of a counter-puncher than attacker.
“I had a rough start this year health-wise,” he said, “but I got over the hump in Miami, got through the clay season, which is my hardest surface, and kept the confidence going across Wimbledon and the summer season in the U.S.”
He says his 11 years on the tour have become a surprising advantage, in a sport known for players rising in their teens and burning out in their late twenties. “Being older gives you the belief that you can find a way to win,” he said. “I’ve been in big stadiums in big tournaments, and being older, I’ve got a big incentive to do well while I can.”
He also benefits from keeping a relatively low profile, away from the media spotlight that seemingly has distracted Roddick this year. Following an early round loss at the China Open last week, Roddick even walked out of a news conference after journalists in Beijing asked him if he was ready to retire.
“That’s the life of being in the spotlight,” Fish said of Roddick. “I can’t say that I know what that’s like, because that’s a pressure I’ve never had in my career. That gives Andy an extra burden to carry around. Whatever he says gets magnified.”
Though Roddick lives in Austin, Texas, and Fish resides in Beverly Hills, Calif., Fish said he still talks with Roddick every day.
“He told me ‘Congratulations on becoming No. 1 in the U.S. I plan on taking it back soon.’”