By Chris Oddo
(April 13, 2011) The longest year of Mardy Fish's career is barely three months old, and it's getting longer every day. It's the recurring nightmare known as the tennis treadmill. The wheel never stops turning, and the moment a player like Fish--with mountains of points to defend and a game that has temporarily gone stale--stops churning his legs, the potential to be sent scrambling down to earth is more than just a worry.
It is real.
Now 30, Mardy Fish is currently spiraling down.
Next stop, earth.
With his K-Swiss ballcap pulled down low to hide his eyes, the earth-bound Fish patiently took questions from the media after his self-described "head-scratcher" of a loss against Michael Russell in Houston yesterday.
He looked discouraged. He looked fed up. Most of all, he looked tired.
"It's my 12th or 13th year out here," said Fish. "It feels like it never ends."
It was an honest statement from the top-ranked American. His rise to prominence in 2011 was the most inspiring story in American men's tennis, but the gargantuan effort that he put forth to make the dream a reality is clearly taking its toll on Fish at the moment.
All the discipline, the extra hours, the dieting, the running uphill in a sport that is cruel to those that have hit their 30th birthday like Fish did last September, is becoming too much to bear for Fish.
"It feels like it just keeps going," said an introspective Fish. "When it piles on top of you like that you have to be careful, because a lot of time you can feel like you don't want to be out there as well, and that's no fun and no good for anyone."
It certainly hasn't been good for Fish, who has struggled to win matches, let alone tournaments, this season.
Even more disconcerting is the fact that Fish's health is now in question. A mysterious health scare took Fish out of action for the American's Davis Cup tie with France last weekend. Doctor's orders were a few days rest.
Clearly, Fish needs more.
After suffering from thyroid-related issues in Australia last year, Fish took some time to regain his health. The extra care paid off during the summer, where the Minnesota native reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals and was a terror during the US hard-court swing that leads up to the US Open.
Eventually, after 68 matches, Fish found himself finishing 2011 in the top ten for the first time in his career.
But after playing straight through the calendar and pushing his worn-out body to join his soul at the ATP World Tour finals in London on a badly strained hamstring, Fish seems to have pushed beyond the point of no return.
Such is life on the ATP tour, where the treadmill ensures that the pressure never drops.
After a ridiculously short off-season, Fish tried to hit the ground running in Australia earlier this year, but failed miserably, losing to Alejandro Falla in the second round. But it wasn’t until after scoring a huge win for the Americans in Davis Cup play against Stan Wawrinka in Switzerland that Fish might have made the fatal mistake.
Instead of heading back to the states and resting his weary bones, Fish got on a plane to play in Marseille and Dubai.
He played poorly in those events, and when he flew back to the U.S. for Indian Wells and Miami, he seemed as lethargic as he's ever been. Running on fumes for months, Fish’s tank finally was empty.
Still, Fish is confident, and he's not about to admit that he doesn't feel he deserves to be mentioned among the game's elite.
"You have a lot of points out there to defend this year, talk about that a little bit," said one member of the media yesterday.
Fish was quick to defend himself.
"I won a lot of matches last year," he said, somewhat defensively. "I didn't get to eight or nine in the world just by one week. I played really well last year. I've won almost 300 matches and a lot of those I have to come back the next year and defend, so it is what it is."
Fish will surely benefit from the confidence he's gained over the last year, in spite of his current form. Deep down, he knows he can do it now. He can play with the big boys. And even though he turned 30, his big-serving, hard-hitting game should allow him a few more years to perform at his peak. Fish doesn't need to grind, he just needs to execute.
But if he doesn't get the rest he needs to perform at the level he expects to, the treadmill may never stop to let him on again.
There is no doubt that Fish would like to remain in the top ten forever, but his best bet might be to leave some points on the table in the clay-court season. Maybe he should stay home and rest, try to find his love for the game again. Let the grinders grind it out on the clay while he regains his strength for the grass and hard-courts that suit his quick-strike game better.
He spent the first 12 years of his career outside the top ten, would a few more months this spring really hurt so much?
When asked if he'd given any thought to skipping part of the clay-court season in order to get himself right, Fish seemed to agree that it might be a good idea.
"Not just yet," he said, "but I will. You always assess your schedule, and when you have breaks in your schedule and you need them you have to take them."
If there ever was a time for Fish to take a break, that time would be now. You can see it in his eyes, even though he'd rather you didn't. The man is tired.
He should rest. The treadmill will still be there when he feels better.
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