Updated: September 2, 2010, 8:36 PM ET

Time is now for Mardy Fish to make splash

Garber By Greg Garber
ESPN.com
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NEW YORK -- Mardy Fish, the first American through to the third round of the U.S. Open, finds himself in a curious spot:

For the very first time in his decade as a professional, he is counted among the favorites in a Grand Slam event -- an overdog, if you will.

"There's a lot of people that have talked about my summer and how well I've played," he said Thursday. "To be honest, I felt like I've been the underdog most matches in my career. I've never put myself in a Grand Slam sort of as a guy that people talk about to really do well here.

"This is the spot that I want to be in."

So far, he's behaving like a favorite. After a taut first set, Fish wrecked Pablo Cuevas 7-5, 6-0, 6-2 at Louis Armstrong Stadium. Half of Fish's six set wins have been shutouts. Why, he's been practically Federer-esque.

This goes against Fish's history in New York; in his first seven tournaments here, he crashed out in the first or second round. Then, in 2008, he advanced to the second major quarterfinal of his career (following the 2007 Australian Open). But last year, he missed his first Open with an injured knee and had it surgically repaired a few weeks later.

The remarkable story has been told -- and retold. Fish changed the way he lived his life, reduced his caloric intake, dropping 30 pounds in the process, and worked out with abandon. If he was a classic underachiever for most of his career, he is now overachieving at the age of 28.

Moving better, reaching more balls and playing with confidence, he was 16-2 this summer, winning titles in Newport and Atlanta and reaching the final at Cincinnati. Fish beat Andy Murray and Andy Roddick before losing to Roger Federer.

"From Newport, I feel like that was the beginning of maybe a 12-month run that I can try to get myself into the top 10," Fish said. "I have a really good opportunity. I'm excited."

Perhaps the only parallel moment in his career was in 2004, when he achieved his highest ranking ever, No. 17.

"After the [2004] Olympics, people talked a lot," Fish said. "I didn't handle it well. I learned from it, obviously. I've learned from even my first-round match here to just be a little more loose, have a little more fun, and enjoy the spot that you're in."

Fish's unlikely rise toward the top comes at an interesting intersection of American career trajectories. James Blake, who is 30, also has two career Grand Slam quarterfinals on his résumé, but he is headed the opposite way; there is a lingering knee injury and he has talked openly of retirement. Blake rallied to beat Peter Polansky of Canada 6-7 (1), 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 on Thursday evening to join Fish in the third round.

Young Americans Ryan Harrison (only 18), Sam Querrey and John Isner are all alive in the top half of the draw.

Roddick is another interesting case. He is a close friend and contemporary of Fish's and his passive second-round loss to Janko Tipsarevic on Wednesday night underlined his possibly fleeting shelf life as a top-10 player.

"This is his favorite tournament," said Fish, who was already asleep when the match was played. "You saw in the spring he was the best hard-court player during that time. If there's a Grand Slam during that time, he's the winner.

"I'm sure in his last few years out here he'll put himself in his best position to do well at Wimbledon."

Fish, on the other hand, is in a nice position here. If he can get by 32-year-old Arnaud Clement -- which shouldn't be a problem -- Fish could meet No. 3 seed Novak Djokovic in the fourth round. He's actually looking forward to it.

"I'd like another crack at a top-five player, top-10 player in a Slam," Fish said. "I think I've beaten a couple of them in Slams but never deep into a tournament. Sort of getting yourself into winning maybe another match and getting myself into the situation of playing a Djokovic or a [Nikolay] Davydenko or one of these guys that has been there quite a few times.

"I certainly feel like I can hang with them."

3 Things I KNOW I Think

1. Caroline Wozniacki isn't ready for a nap: She's played a ton of matches -- 18 in the past month or so -- but the No. 1 seed looks exceedingly fresh. On Thursday, she shut out Chang Kai-chen 6-0, 6-0. It was over in 47 minutes and the player from Chinese Taipei was the second double-bagel victim of the Golden Retriever; Edina Gallovits was a shutout victim last year in New Haven.

2. Kei Nishikori, on the other hand, could use a few weeks off: The 20-year-old from Shimane, Japan, started cramping in the second set, but he survived a nasty 4-hour, 59-minute battle with No. 11 seed Marin Cilic. Nishikori is through to the third round after winning 5-7, 7-6 (6), 3-6, 7-6 (3), 6-1. Cilic actually won one more point than Nishikori (190), but wilted in the on-court heat, which was measured at 102 degrees.

3. Nikolay Davydenko's summer from hell is now, mercifully, over: After he won his first nine matches this year (including the title in Doha), a wrist injury reduced him to mediocrity. The Russian is 12-11 since and got blown off the Grandstand court by Richard Gasquet 6-3, 6-4, 6-2. Davydenko was consistently uninspired and went a woeful 0-for-8 on break points.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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