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By Richard Pagliaro

(February 23, 2010) It's been said sometimes you have to lose to know how to win.

Three former Delray Beach champions — Tommy Haas, Xavier Malisse and Kei Nishikori — failed to survive the first round at the International Tennis Championships.

Defending champion Mardy Fish was already the tournament's biggest loser before he even stepped on court for his opening-round win over Christophe Rochus.

A streamlined Fish shed 25 pounds in the offseason and took the stadium court at his lightest playing weight since his high school days.

Looking fitter, fresher and faster than he has in years, Fish was deadlocked with Christophe Rochus, 5-7, 6-3, 3-3 when the 31-year-old Belgian retired from the match due to a back injury after one hour and 59 minutes of play.

Fish entered the post-match press conference wearing a large ice bag taped to his surgically-repaired left knee and a blotchy scabs and scars on his right elbow and right knee: battle scars from taking dives across the court. But the most striking physical difference in the 73rd-ranked Fish is his slender physique.

"I'll take it," Fish told the media in the post-match press conference. "He kicked my butt last year in Memphis (6-2, 6-4). He's got an annoying game for sure. He gets a lot of balls back. He's got great hands and good returns. It's sort of a nightmare for me and not having played a lot of matches in the past few months you don't know what to expect when you get out there. It is humid and hot and life is pretty good in that kind of weather for me."

Life took an unexpected turn last year for the man who grew up in Floridaand started the season on a 12-5 run, reaching the final in San Jose and winning his third career title in Delray Beach before an enthusiastic contingent of family and friends. But injuries stalled his momentum. He suffered a fractured rib in a five-set Davis Cup quarterfinal setback to Marin Cilic then underwent surgery on his left knee on September 28th.

Uncertan of his competitive future following the knee surgery, Fish and wife Stacey Gardner didn't spend their spare time cleaning house during his recovery. Instead, they cleaned out the refrigerator, hired a personal chef and embarked on a high protein, low carb diet.

Then then 200+ pound Fish hoped to lose 10 to 15 pounds on the diet, but cutting out sugar, soft drinks, butter, cheese and some oil from his diet, Fish shed more than 25 pounds and now weighs in the "high 170s."

"It was really hard to do," Fish said. "I thought I only had 10 or 15 pounds to lose and 10 or 15 pounds came off in like a month and a half. We were not eating after 6:30. We were absolutely religious about it...
I used to eat anything I wanted at any time just thinking I could always burn it off and some days I wouldn't do anything and not burn it off. Nowadays I don't do that."

Fish has streamlined his body and reshaped his life since losing the weight.

"I feel way completely different, like a completely different person," Fish said. "I feel like I'm actually in shape. I had like three and a half months (off due to knee surgery) and you just don't get three and half months off in our line of work. I set myself up the next few years at least not to have an excuse."

For years, Fish had a reputation as a talented all-court player whose game was built around his big first serve, slapshot two-handed backhand and his ability to play the net. But his lack of conditioning slowed his mobility around the court and sometimes affected his shot selection, prompting him to try to end points prematurely rather than risk being run right out of the points.

Now, at age 28, Fish said the dramatic weight loss has helped him gain a sense of self confidence, renewed strength and the self belief that if he maintains his current conditioning he can play into his 30s.

"I feel great. I feel completely different," Fish said. "I feel healthy, strong and hopefully I've got four or five or six more years left in me. I'm 28, but I have had injuries in 2005 when I didn't play much at all and I missed half the year last year. I still feel like I've got some good years left. Hopefully, I can stay injury free and keep playing."

Next up for Fish is a second-round meeting with lefthander Mischa Zverev, who fought back from a 3-5 third-set deficit to defeat Michael Russell, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5. His hunger for tennis seemingly renewed, Fish conceded he still sometimes harbors a craving for another kind of nourishment: pizza.

"Pizza," Fish said when asked what food he misses most. "Really, I don't crave anything anymore. I was eating so much and eating so poorly I was able to shrink my stomach to the point I wasn't hungry anymore. I feel great now."


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