It is a few days to go until the U.S. Open and Mardy Fish is talking baseball. Kind of.
More accurately, the world No. 8 and highest-ranked American, man or woman, is explaining how the mindset needed to combat tennis' grand triumvirate of male stars, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, is like that of a pitcher on the mound.
"You've just got to throw a bunch of different stuff and those guys and try to make them uncomfortable," Fish says. "Thinking like a pitcher is the best analogy. You have got to throw curveballs and change-ups and fastballs and body serves otherwise you are just going to let him get in a groove."
When Fish talks about those men nowadays, he has earned the right to do so as a genuine threat. Yes, the tennis world is still looking up at its Big Three, but Fish is firmly established as part of a hopeful and hungry group behind them.
Furthermore, he nearly knocked off the all-conquering Djokovic in the final of the Rogers Cup Masters Series event in Montreal earlier this month, before beating Nadal in straight sets on the way to the semis in Cincinnati a week later.
A home victory in New York, where no American man has won since Andy Roddick in 2003, is highly improbable. But with a favorable seeding of eighth, Fish will avoid the big guns until a possible quarterfinal with Federer, and a deep run can legitimately be expected.
It has been a remarkable comeback for Fish, whose year-end ranking of 16th in 2010 was a career high. Back in 2009 a knee injury became so severe as to lead to thoughts of quitting the game. Instead, it was the catalyst for a mightily impressive turnaround.
Fish was encouraged to recommit himself to tennis by his new wife, actress Stacey Gardner, and began to work harder than ever. Fish's problem during his career had never been a lack of talent but a dearth of physical fitness. He had the natural athletic tools to be a star but, as he puts it, "was simply too heavy to be running around a tennis court."
After dropping 10 pounds thanks to a routine of extra workouts and sensible eating he enjoyed the look and the fresh energy so much that he shed another 20.
"There was not an exact moment where I said, 'This is it'," says Fish. "It kind of built up and with the knee surgery and not being able to work out at all with the stitches, it just hit me. I had a lot of questions. I had been fooling myself. I thought I was in shape, but I really was not."
Soon he would surge past Roddick, his close friend and former housemate, in the rankings after becoming one of the most consistent all-round players on tour and adding heat and accuracy to his serving game.
A run to the quarterfinal at Wimbledon matched his career-best Slam performance, but it is in New York where he would love to shine the most. Last year's run ended in Round Four, with a defeat to Djokovic, but this is a more confident Fish than ever before and the upside is huge.
What will he do this time around? Much will depend on how he handles the pressure, which, given his new status at top American, will be significant. America largely ignores tennis for 50 weeks of the year but the Big Apple lights up for it in early September, especially on those floodlit Flushing nights when play sometimes stretches into the early hours.
"It is much harder to play when you are supposed to win and it is going to be very different," Fish says. "But there is also a reason why I am high in the world rankings now. It is because I have transformed and figured out a way to beat a lot of players. I figured out a way to be a really good player."
Being really good, though, is not enough on its own to get all the way to the business end of major championships. With the exception of Juan Martin del Potro’s remarkable U.S. Open triumph two years ago, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have claimed every single major among them since the 2005 French Open.
The Big Three show no sign of easing their grip on the sport, but if an American is going to shake things up this year, Fish is the man most likely to do it.