If Mardy Fish were to pull up a chair in a Twin Cities sports bar, he'd blend right into the conversation. He's still smarting over the Vikings loss in the NFC title game. He calls KFAN regularly to give his opinions on the local teams. He watches every Twins game via the Internet, and as a true-blue Minnesota optimist, he's even certain the Timberwolves will get better someday.
For the most part, it's a long-distance love affair. As one of the hottest players in men's professional tennis, Fish is more likely to be seen on the TVs of Minnesota sports bars than on their stools. The Edina native enters next week's U.S. Open in the best form of his career, thanks to a new commitment to fitness that has led him to two victories on the ATP Tour this summer and a No. 21 world ranking.
Last week, Fish beat two players ranked in the top 10 -- No. 4 Andy Murray and No. 9 Andy Roddick -- before losing to second-ranked Roger Federer in the final of a tournament in Cincinnati. When he wasn't on the court, he was keeping tabs on the Twins and Vikings. Though he travels in the same pro-athlete orbit as Kevin Garnett, who was a guest at Fish's wedding, he's never lost touch with his inner fan.
"Even though I don't live in Minnesota any more, my roots are there, and I love everything about it,'' said Fish, 28. "A few of the other [ATP players] like John Isner, James Blake and Andy Roddick, they're big sports fans, too. But I'm not sure they've latched onto a team as much as I have with the Twins and Vikings and Timberwolves. If you go into the media room in my house, you'll definitely know what kind of fan I am.''
That part of the Los Angeles home Fish shares with his wife, Stacey Gardner -- a lawyer better known as a suitcase model on the TV game show "Deal or No Deal'' -- is packed with Minnesota sports memorabilia. It reflects a passion rooted mostly in heredity rather than environment. Fish's family moved from Edina to Florida when Mardy was 4, but his dad, Tom, carried more than 30 years of state pride with him and passed it along to his son.
Tom Fish grew up in White Bear Lake and went to the University of Minnesota. He taught tennis in the Twin Cities at such places as the Greenway Athletic Club and the Minneapolis Tennis Center before heading to Florida, where he has been a teaching pro in Vero Beach for 20 years. Father and son make occasional pilgrimages to Minnesota for sports weekends, such as the one last year that included Timberwolves, Gophers football, Gophers hockey and Vikings games in the span of 48 hours.
"I like all the Minnesota teams, and there is no other team I have any love for,'' Tom said. "I guess Mardy caught the bug, because he totally loves those teams.''
Next week, Tom and Sally Fish will head to New York for the ultimate sports trip: watching their son play in the U.S. Open. They've seen him there before, including his 2008 run to the quarterfinals that matched his highest finish in a Grand Slam event.
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Mardy will return to Flushing Meadows as a smaller man with a bigger game. After knee surgery last winter, he hoped to shed 10 to 15 pounds and improve his fitness. He wound up losing 30 pounds, which eased the burden on his knees and allowed him to build more quickness and stamina.
That conditioning has helped Fish maximize the considerable skills he's flashed through 11 seasons as a pro. For most of that time, he's been known as much for his inconsistency as for his big serve and strong play at the net. Fish enjoyed his finest seasons in 2003 and 2004, highlighted by his silver medal in men's singles at the Athens Olympics and his rise to No. 17 in the rankings, a career best. Over the next five years, injuries and uneven play limited his success.
While recovering from last year's knee surgery, Fish gave serious thought to his future in tennis. "You look in the mirror, and you try to figure out just how much you want to be out here,'' he said. "How much do you want to continue to dream? What are your goals? How badly do you want to do some really cool things in this sport?
"I've had a nice career, but I felt like I'd left some matches out there. To be honest, I wasn't as fit as I needed to be or could have been. This is a pretty good job, and to be able to do it is a blessing. I wanted to maximize it. Now I feel like a different player, a different person on the court.''
Over the course of four months, Fish lost the weight by cutting out his main vices -- pizza and hamburgers -- and all junk food. That discipline flowed into his intensified workouts, then into his game.
Peak fitness has allowed Fish to outlast opponents and sustain points longer; instead of rushing a shot, he knows he has the stamina to wait for a better one. His all-court game is sharper than ever, and his improved mental strength has led to greater consistency. The real story, though, lies in the results.
Since March 1, Fish has risen from 108th to 21st in the rankings, which earned him the 19th seed for the U.S. Open in Thursday's draw (his first-round foe is Jan Hajek of the Czech Republic). He won 11 matches in a row earlier this summer, the longest streak of his career by far. He has won two tournaments in a season for the first time and has made it to the finals in four tournaments while compiling a 22-4 record since June.
"It's been a pleasant surprise for American tennis to see Mardy Fish, a name that's been known, to be surging back,'' said Wayzata's David Wheaton, who played 13 seasons on the pro tour. "The fact that he's in his late 20s and having a resurgence, that's unusual.
"He has really great skills and talent. What he lacked was a disciplined approach to the game, and the fact that he's overcome that is a big deal.''
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Fish said he will enter the U.S. Open as healthy, fit and confident as he has ever been before a major tournament. The only thing he has lost is the element of surprise. His longtime friend Roddick said Fish has "played himself into the discussion'' of the players who pose the greatest challenge to the favorites, and Federer isn't looking forward to a rematch anytime soon.
"He can definitely cause the upset,'' Federer said after beating Fish in a hard-fought final in Cincinnati. "I hope Mardy's not in my section of the draw.''
Wheaton said that Fish will have to adapt to those new expectations. But he added that if Fish gets a favorable draw at the open and makes it through his early matches without overextending himself, he could go deep into the tournament.
Though Fish described his weight loss as the hardest thing he's done in his career, it has also paid unimaginable dividends. He has enjoyed his new success so much that diet-busting foods have lost their appeal, overshadowed by a list of goals suddenly within reach: a Grand Slam semifinal, a victory at a Masters Series event, a few more years on tour than his old body would have allowed.
And, maybe, becoming as big a sports star in Minnesota as the guys he cheers for. "I'm not sure if the state has a huge tennis community,'' Fish said. "But I hope people there know how much I love Minnesota.
"This is probably the best I've ever played and the best I've ever felt physically and mentally. Since I lost the weight, I'm doing things I've never done before, and that makes you wonder what you can do. That will keep me going for quite a while.''