Fish quietly emerges as top U.S. threat

CINCINNATI -- Andy Roddick and Ryan Harrison both angrily fired balls toward the top of the stadium during their exits at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati this week, the almost-but-not-quite past and for-now-still future of American men's tennis displaying the fiery, passionate and sometimes brash national faces of the game.

The current face of the American men's game is a little quieter, reflective, more demure -- so demure, in fact, that he's hardly willing to accept the role. Although he has been the top-ranked American for much of this season, Mardy Fish insists that Roddick is still the top dog in his mind. The former No. 1 and 2003 U.S. Open champion has had a more illustrious career than Fish, who counts three Grand Slam quarterfinals and four Masters finals as his best results.

But it will all hit home in a couple of weeks' time when he enters the U.S. Open as the nation's No. 1 for the first time. "I don't necessarily feel like I'll be the top American. I will maybe be ranked the highest," Fish maintains, knowing that this year will potentially be different from past editions. "I've sort of gone under the radar pretty comfortably; haven't had to answer too many critics.

"With the No. 1 American comes a little bit of extra pressure, but it's good pressure. It's certainly a position you want to be in. Again, it's new for me. It's not a place that I feel extremely comfortable in."

Yet right here and right now, Fish undoubtedly heads his compatriots on the circuit. He is at a career-high ranking of No. 7 after reaching the finals of the Rogers Cup in Montreal last week, losing to world No. 1 Novak Djokovic but becoming one of the few players this season to even push the Serb into a deciding set. He also has been one of the form players of the summer's U.S. Open Series events by a substantial margin, after winning the Atlanta Tennis Championships and reaching the final of the Farmers Classic in Los Angeles in addition to his run in Montreal.

This late-career surge, which began just more than a year ago, has given Fish's status as the top-ranked American far more legitimacy than if it had simply been the result of other Americans struggling. But it also has been timely, because most have been struggling. His contemporaries and good friends, Roddick and James Blake, have been hit with injuries during the past year, and Alex Bogomolov, despite strong progress, remains outside the top 40. The nation's younger players have not been taking the circuit by storm -- John Isner is only just starting to post occasional good results after a poor start to the year, Sam Querrey is still out after elbow surgery and Donald Young remains as enigmatic as ever. The teenaged Harrison is climbing but still developing his all-around game and learning to manage his emotions.

Although Fish arrived on the tour sporting plenty of talent in the form of a big serve and attacking game, getting to this point has been a long, painstaking process of improvement. His recent rise began with dropping 30 pounds after undergoing knee surgery in 2009, part of an overall improvement in fitness and speed that has given him the ability to stay in points and matches he previously would have lost. Before that, he overhauled his weaker forehand side and has worked on consistently improving various parts of his game.

"My forehand return was at one point, I felt like, the weakest shot of my entire game," he said. "Guys would just exploit that."

"Look, we've put in a lot of work on that specific shot. I take returns every single day before matches and in practice just to the forehand. ... Sometimes now, you know, it's still not as good as my backhand return, but I'm able to kind of bluff that side away a little better than I used to."

Now, at 29, it has all added up and taken him from being the dangerous floater top seeds wanted to avoid to being that top seed himself. That's a change Fish finds himself comfortable with. "It's very different," he said. "It's much harder to play when you're supposed to win. But there is also a reason why I'm seven in the world now. It's because I've transformed and figured out a way to beat a lot of players. I figured out a way to be a really good player.

"I can impose my serve game ... and impose my return game on a lot of guys that hopefully makes them feel uncomfortable."

Proficient as Fish has become in taking care of business in the opening rounds, it's the next step -- winning those big matches later in the tournament -- that he is currently working on.

"I'm not sure I'm there yet, to be honest. I mean, that's the goal, is to get there, to really believe that you can step out on the court and win a big match like [that]," Fish said before last week's final against Djokovic, who has lost only one match this year. "You've got to really believe in it, like I said. I mean, I can sit here all I want and say, 'Yeah, I think I can beat anyone on any given day.' Kind of cliché. Look, I certainly believe that. But, you know, it's not a second round of a 250 [lower-tier tournament.] This is a big, big event."

Despite losing to Djokovic, Fish was encouraged that he took the opportunity to get into the match. "I was pretty comfortable with the fact that, you know, we were 2-2 in the third for a Masters Series title. Yeah, I mean, I put myself in a position against a guy that has beaten everybody this year except for one match, and beaten a lot of players pretty convincingly, and a lot in straight sets," he said. "That's a final clearly that he wants to win, so it's not like it's a first-round match where you catch him on a bad day."

Djokovic felt the same on the other side of the net. "I think he's playing the best tennis of his career, to be honest," Djokovic said. "I have been competing with him for the last couple of years, and, you know, he moves much better on the court nowadays. I think mentally he just believes it more against top players.

"He's a top-10 player of the world, he's the top American, and he deserves to be there."

Some of Fish's past losses on big occasions have been attributed to a lack of competitive fire, at least in the heat of battle. His mellow and approachable personality makes him widely popular on the circuit even beyond the close-knit current crop of American men -- sharing a good friendship with Juan Martin del Potro, singing karaoke with Serena Williams, teasing Caroline Wozniacki online about new boyfriend Rory McIlroy.

But it also may have meant that Fish's mental toughness, like his game, has taken longer to evolve. The U.S. Open is likely to be a good test, with perhaps a preview in Cincinnati this week, where he is a defending finalist. Reaching the final in Montreal means he will not face a big rankings drop if he doesn't get as far this year, something he hopes will allow him to play better. "Maybe it's a defense mechanism to try to convince myself that I don't have a lot of pressure this week," he said. "You know, in all reality, I do."

His newly acquired discipline and thoughtful outlook make him a good figurehead for this time of transition in the American game, even if he would have liked to have learned some of the lessons earlier.

"Yeah, I wish I was 24, but I'm not," Fish said. "Everyone has regrets. Look, I'll just ride it as long as I can and as long as I'm healthy and playing good tennis."

Waiting for the next big thing, American tennis will be doing the same.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.