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Thursday, August 26, 2010
Updated: August 27, 9:46 AM ET
Is Fish the U.S. Open's Cinderfella?

By LZ Granderson
ESPN.com

Seeds are tasty on salads. They're great for making maracas and who could throw a cherry pit-spitting contest without 'em?

But I don't have much use for seeds come the U.S. Open. As far as I'm concerned the No. 19 seed officials attached next to Mardy Fish's name in no way reflects the lights-out tennis he's been playing much of the year.

He started the year ranked No. 108, but heads into the Open No. 21. He's beaten No. 9 Andy Roddick twice, No. 4 Andy Murray thrice and swept aside No. 8 Fernando Verdasco. Even in his losses he's been tough -- hanging a bagel on No. 3 Novak Djokovic at Indian Wells and going toe-to-toe with No. 2 Roger Federer, dropping only one service game in the final at Cincinnati last week.

With Serena Williams out, Fish has quietly migrated from out-of-shape underachiever to the country's best hope for an Open singles title.

Now much of the talk surrounding his surge has been about the 30 pounds he's dropped since last September's knee surgery. No doubt his physical transformation has a lot to do with his improved fitness and play, but honestly that's just a byproduct of something greater that happened to him during his time off. You see, the real reason why the 28-year-old is having such a fairy-tale season isn't because he shrank but rather because he finally grew up.

Mardy Fish
Mardy Fish heads into the U.S. Open with a new, sharper focus.

"I wasn't a big partier or anything like that but I just sort of did whatever I wanted to do," Fish said about his younger days. "In the tennis world, we're our own bosses out there and I was immature with a lot of the choices I made.

"Eating whatever I wanted was part of it but really there were a lot of other things too. Nights before matches I wouldn't get enough rest … weeks before tournaments I wouldn't put in the work to get ready … I think back then a lot of the time I got by on being young, and I was too satisfied with the results I was getting from just getting by. I was in top 25 and I was settling. Today I'm no longer settling."

So after knee surgery shut him down last September, Fish and Stacey, his wife of barely a year, set on a course to not only get him back into tennis form but the best shape of his life.

"It's one thing when it's just you out there playing, you feel as if you can still goof off a little and it doesn't matter," he said. "But I think it's jarring to all of a sudden play for something bigger than you … realizing you're not just out here playing for yourself. There's a family you have to support now. Now you're a team. She was a huge help and has always been incredibly supportive, and the time I had off at the end of last year, it gave us time to strengthen that bond so I'm even more motivated, more focused."

How focused?

How's winning a tour-best 80 percent of his first-serve points?

How's 16-2, three finals and two titles since Wimbledon?

How's coming from behind five times to win the match during that stretch, including twice for the championship?

Now only a fool would suggest a guy with a 5-13 mark in finals and someone who has never been further than a Grand Slam quarter has a chance to walk into Arthur Ashe Stadium and beat Federer or Rafael Nadal or whoever ends up on the opposite side of the net for the title. And as former tennis pro Brian Vahaly told me, there's a big difference between the two-out-of-three-set matches Fish has been winning and the three-out-of-five-set matches required to get a Slam.

Well, I guess I'm a fool.

"I don't feel as if I'm a favorite … but I do feel as if I can beat anyone out there."

Good enough for me. And consider this -- the last time Fish was in a Grand Slam quarters was the U.S. Open in 2008. And that Fish ain't this Fish. Based on his summer, he's as good of a dark-horse pick as any.

Besides, what's a major tournament without a Cinderfella to root for?

"I couldn't be happier for Mardy," said tennis analyst and former pro Justin Gimelstob. "He hits the balls incredibly clean, his backhand and serve are as pure as it gets and he is one of the few effective players in the transitional area of the court.

"He is a definite contender at the U.S. Open."

Well, I guess that makes two fools. A few more and we'll have a movement.

Anyway, in listening to Fish talk about the impact his marriage has had on his career and how he is now doing the little things necessary to be a top-tier player, I couldn't help but wonder if he had any regrets. I'm sure he had his fun, but like Andre Agassi, that fun likely cost him consistency -- and a lot of money.

"Hmmmm, any regrets … hmmmm," and after a brief pause he said:

"It's tough to say no and it's tough to dwell on. I have some regrets as far as taking care of my body early in my career and as far as living my life and making the decisions that I made. I did not take my career as seriously back then as I do now but I'll never dwell on that.

"That was me at 20 to 25 years old, and I had a lot of fun and had no complaints. But because I didn't play as much tennis, my body is much fresher. I don't have the body of a 28-year-old tennis player but I have the mind of one. I understand the game so much better now, and I still have the legs to do everything I want to do out there. So all I can do is stay focused on today, and make the most of the moments I have now … that goes for tennis and for life."

I don't know about you, but I feel the need to check Fish's birth certificate. No way did I have that kind of wisdom at 28. I had a lot more growing up to do.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.