Fish doing justice to his natural talent

Mardy Fish said he never thought about it during his 7-5, 6-2 quarterfinal victory over Spain’s David Ferrer on Wednesday at the Sony Ericsson Open, but on reflection, his ranking rise to become the top American male tennis player in the world left him humbled.

Fish will be displacing one of his best friends, Andy Roddick, as the top American. The friendship goes back to high school in Boca Raton, Fla., where they both played tennis and were on the basketball team together at Boca Prep International School. During 1999, Fish stayed with Roddick’s family and, of course, the pair ended up on the same Davis Cup squad when they became pros. Fish has been insisting that, no matter what their rankings are, he never will match Roddick’s achievements in the game.

“I’ve never been in this position before,” he said when asked about his new elevated ranking. “Obviously it’s very humbling. This is a pretty big country, a lot of people playing tennis. So I’ll try and put it in perspective and I will. No 11 sounds really good, too. You know, these are the rewards that come with working as hard as I did.”

The perspective is interesting because it often is misread by the media and the public when it comes to evaluating a tennis player. Many people think being ranked No. 45 on the ATP makes you mediocre. Some are unimpressed by anyone not ranked in the top five. That, of course, is ridiculous. We are talking the entire world here. If you could rank individual soccer players, the 11th or 20th or 45th player in the world would be a huge star on a multimillion-dollar contract with Real Madrid, Arsenal or Inter Milan.

Fish’s achievement of moving up to a career high of No. 11 after starting the year at No. 16 is considerable. He’s the 11th best person in the whole world at what he does. That’s pretty amazing for a young man who did not take his career very seriously in his early 20s and never reached his fighting weight. Then came the knee surgery in 2009, followed by the diet, and now the new, slim-line Fish is finally able to do justice to his natural talent.

There has been plenty of it on view here this week as Fish has worked his way past Richard Gasquet, Juan Martin del Potro and now Ferrer – who may not have been at his best but is always a difficult customer to overcome. The muscular Spaniard who normally can run all day (and has reached two semifinals at Key Biscayne) said he was suffering from stomach pains and indigestion, and he certainly seemed to fade in untypical fashion in the second set. By then, however, Fish had established his dominance with some clever serving, mixing up the pace and direction.

“Against Gasquet, I served only 37 percent first serves,” he said. “I knew he’s a very good server, so sometimes in the back of your mind you’re trying to over-serve and hit it too hard. So we worked on that. We worked on the ball toss. If you have a good serve, you want to be able to win free points, especially against someone like Ferrer who can lock in on the return and put every single one back.”

It was another hot day and windier than before, but Fish wasn’t worried about that. “I’ve played in these conditions thousands of times more than he has, and I knew I was not going to play as well as I did yesterday because the ball is not going to be in the position I want it to be in — the wind might take the ball shorter or longer than yesterday. I knew that. I tried to use it to my advantage.”

And the new American No. 1 did just that.

Fish’s task will not get any easier on Friday when he plays Novak Djokovic, the Serb who can do no wrong. Djokovic extended his unbeaten run to 24 matches when he beat tall South African Kevin Anderson 6-4, 6-2 under the lights. Anderson has improved this year, but then so has Djokovic – a fact which nullified any hope Anderson had of repeating his shock victory over Djokovic here back in 2008.

Kim Clijsters obviously was feeling the effects of her remarkable escape from 1-5 and five match points in the third set against Ana Ivanovic on Tuesday when she went down 6-3, 6-3 to Victoria Azarenka of Belarus. Clijsters was the title holder here and Azarenka had won it the year before, but this time Clijsters was a pale version of her normal self.

“I just didn’t have any fighting spirit,” she admitted. “It been a tough last few days.”

Away from the main stadium, a doubles match took place that offered a strange link to the day’s biggest international sporting attraction — India’s Cricket World Cup semifinal being played against Pakistan in Mohali, India. It was a match big enough to bring the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers together and was watched by a television audience approaching 1 billion. To say it stopped a sub-continent is something of an understatement.

India won that encounter by 29 runs, but in the quarterfinals of the doubles at Key Biscayne, both countries lost because Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan and his Indian partner Rohan Bopanna went down 6-4, 7-6 (8) to Austria’s Oliver Marach and Serbia’s Janko Tipsarevic. Qureshi and Bopanna have been trailblazers for their cause of bringing nations together through sports, but this was an afternoon when their loyalties must have been a little divided. But the U.S. Open doubles finalists will continue to show that sports can help overcome political differences.