Fish rises to challenge with a liking for the net

Faces to follow for 2004: America's hottest prospect used to race Roddick to school and is now chasing him up rankings

Mardy Fish first made a name for himself as the best two-year-old tennis player in the world. The title was invented by a television sportscaster in Minnesota for a cameo showing the toddler hitting a ball over the net from the baseline.

To Fish's horror, the video clip was resurrected 20 years later during a rain delay at the United States Open. "Oh, my God. They're not showing that on national television," Fish groaned as James Blake, his Davis Cup team-mate, burst out laughing.

Aside from the usual embarrassment felt by a young man when his well-meaning mother passes around childhood snapshots - in this case the tape found its way to CBS via Mrs Sally Fish and the US Tennis Association - the style of play was outdated. Mardy had long since abandoned the baseline to attack the net.

"My Dad [Tom] is a teaching professional and my Mom fed me balls in the basement sometimes," he said. "I've always played the way I play. Even in the juniors I always came to the net. I can't stay back and try to tire players out in long rallies. I love coming to the net whether it be on the serve or the return or the ground stroke."

A serve-and-volley rarity, Fish was the only player to take a set off Roger Federer at Wimbledon last summer. The magnificent Swiss regained his composure and went on to win the third-round match, 6-3, 6-1, 4-6, 6-1.

"He's got a big game, definitely," Federer said. "He's got a very big serve. He can still improve his consistency on the serve, because I think he could have a great serve. He returns well. He has his weaknesses, but there's not a weakness that stands out, especially on the grass."

Having ended 2002 ranked No 81 in the world, Fish gained momentum after Wimbledon and finished 2003 at No 20. "It was a really good ending to the second half of the year," he said. "My goal at the beginning of the year was to finish in the top 50 and then hopefully have my break-out year."

Fish advanced to his first Masters Series final in Cincinnati in August, losing to his compatriot Andy Roddick, the dominant figure of the hard-court season, and won his first ATP title in Stockholm in October. He also reached two earlier finals last year, losing to a compatriot, Jan-Michael Gambill, in Delray Beach, Florida, in March and to Greg Rusedski, the British No 2, in Nottingham in June.

"He's good, it's as simple as that," Tim Henman said after the British No 1 lost to Fish in the first round of the Madrid Masters in October. "I think he's got a modern-day game, with a great serve, and he goes for his shots."

Like Henman, the 22-year-old Fish considers Wimbledon his most likely option for a major title. "The grass suits my type of game the best," Fish said.

"It's my favourite surface. Growing up, I always felt like Wimbledon was going to be my tournament, my break-out tournament. I still feel that one of these years I'm going to have a good Wimbledon."

Currently the third-ranked American behind Roddick, the world No 1, and Andre Agassi, Fish admires the veteran Todd Martin. "I really like watching Todd play," he said. "I haven't really modelled my game after Todd's, but I think that he plays great tennis. He's a very crafty player, a very wise player."

The Fish family moved from Minnesota to Florida when Mardy was three years old. In 1999 the fledging tennis prospect stayed with the Roddick family in Boca Raton for eight months when he and Andy were at high school together. "I've heard every fish pun there is," Roddick said.

Fish's recollection of that period invokes images of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: "It wasn't like we were best friends or anything, we were more like brothers. We fought all the time. We were very competitive. We played a lot of one-on-one basketball, and we'd race to school every day."

In August 2002, Fish appointed Kelly Jones as his coach, and the former doubles player has helped to tune his game. "Kelly knows the volley, and he's helped me a lot on my serve," Fish said. "My motion was always fine, but sometimes if I play too quick, the toss gets low. He's helped me overall mentally and by being a friend away from the court."

Although the 33-year-old Agassi continues to joust with the new generation, Pete Sampras and Michael Chang have joined Jim Courier in retirement, leaving the future of the American game in the hands of Roddick, Fish, Blake, Taylor Dent and Robby Ginepri.

Fish is determined to meet the challenge. "Not to put anybody in the same bracket as those great names - those shoes are tough to fill - but there is a lot of talent coming up," he said. "Time will tell."

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