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Fish could regain alpha American status in comeback

Photo: Henny Ray Abrams/AP

Mardy Fish, who had a heart procedure in May, hasn't played since the U.S. Open in September.

Mardy Fish should be aware of something as he makes his comeback at Indian Wells this week: He has been missed.

Aside from his generally classy demeanor, Fish brings a singular style among his American contemporaries. From John Isner and Sam Querrey on down, the U.S. has dutifully followed the worldwide trend toward baseliners: players capable of rushing the net on occasion, but generally wired to avoid the risk and stay back.

Perhaps Fish never reminded anyone of Pat Rafter or Stefan Edberg, but he plays an exciting brand of all-court tennis at his best, covering the court with admirable quickness and agility. One doubts he's making any promises as he returns from a six-month absence, given he's 31 years old and a different man, as he views the world, after nearly a full year of treatment and recovery from a heart condition.

It's safe to say, though, that Fish wouldn't be coming back if he didn't feel he had some A-1 tennis in store. This is a man who powered his way to the world No. 7 less than two years ago, and even after all that time off, he still holds No. 32. It's entirely possible he can regain the status he attained, ever so briefly, as his good friend Andy Roddick slipped into decline: No. 1 man in American tennis.

In keeping with so many events of the recent past, Fish would rather forget his Indian Wells appearance last year. Ranked eighth at the time, he took a controversial third-round loss to Australian newcomer Matthew Ebden 6-3, 6-4, a match that took both a physical and emotional toll.

Fish played the latter stages with a bloodied knee, the result of a diving attempt for a backhand volley. He also had a heated argument with chair umpire Felix Torralba in the ninth game of the second set after a "hindrance" call went against him. If you recall the women's final at the 2011 U.S. Open, this was a similar circumstance to Serena Williams being cited for hindrance, yelling "Come on!" during a winning stroke against Samantha Stosur. Fish hit what he expected to be an unreturnable forehand drop volley and yelled "Come on!" as he started to turn around -- but Ebden chased it down, managing to get a racket on the ball in futile pursuit. Torralba ruled that Fish had hindered the attempt, then handed the point to Ebden.

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Fish, believing Torralba had the option of having the point replayed, unleashed a few choice words and couldn't regain his composure when the match resumed. He later apologized, but that was just the beginning of a nightmarish year that found Fish in a middle-of-the-night panic some two weeks later, feeling "like I was going to die," during the Miami event.

Fish's heart condition became an ongoing issue and, eventually, forced him to withdraw from the U.S. Open before a scheduled fourth-round match against Roger Federer. The question now, as he deems himself fit to play, is exactly what kind of player we're going to see.

The real comeback, at least in a tennis sense, came during a Davis Cup tie against Colombia in September 2010, when months of hardcore training paid off for a slimmed-down, more fully committed Fish. In what Patrick McEnroe called "one of the greatest efforts in Davis Cup history," Fish became the first U.S. man since Pete Sampras to be involved in all three winning points. The victory came on the road, on Fish's least favorite surface (clay), and he called it "one of the biggest -- if not the biggest -- accomplishment of my career."

That performance launched Fish's ascent through the rankings, a development he found both satisfying and unsettling. For so many years he'd been Roddick's sidekick, happy to enjoy the tour's cushy lifestyle and get by on his natural talent. "Maybe a little bit of success came easy for him," Darren Cahill recalled. "When you get around a 15-to-40 ranking, you're making a pretty good living, everything is good, and you don't want to rock the boat."

As much as Fish wanted more, after all that hard work, he found the landscape had changed. His coach, Mark Knowles, told Tennis.com that Fish struggled with the notion of being the United States' top player.

"It's easier on the way up because every week is a new positive," Knowles said. "Then, all of a sudden, you're going into a major as a totally different person than you've been your entire career. Things are being asked of you that you never had to deal with before."

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It wasn't long before Fish's health issues became the sole concern -- for himself, his wife, his coach and his many friends within the sport. We find him now in an apparently relaxed, forthright state of mind, happily finding the time to participate in Monday night's "L.A. Tennis Challenge," an exhibition he helped organize with ATP board of directors member Justin Gimelstob.

Fish and Gimelstob both live in greater Los Angeles, often training together on the UCLA courts, and they were crushed by the sequence of events that found the Farmers Classic -- an L.A.-based event dating to 1927 -- sold to interests in Bogota.

"I refuse to accept that tennis is dead in L.A.," Gimelstob told the Los Angeles Times last week. "Mardy and I don't want to see it die. We've been thinking how natural it would be for L.A. to have an event at this time of the year -- just before Indian Wells, with all that talent coming to this part of the world."

Whatever happens over the next few years, Gimelstob's message has resonance. Novak Djokovic, who had never played in Los Angeles, committed to Monday night's event, along with Tommy Haas, James Blake, Sampras and the Bryan brothers.

"Novak is doing it because he's a friend," Gimelstob said, "and he understands what we're trying to do here."

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Before a crowd of some 8,000 at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, Fish lost a pro-set tiebreaker to Djokovic 8-7 (2) and called the match "a big test for me. To come through felt pretty good, but I don't feel 100 percent."

Fish also told reporters that his future in the game was very much in doubt last fall.

"I've retired 15 times in my head," he said. "The first three, four months (after the U.S. Open) I felt I was done for sure, but then gradually you start feeling better. The bottom line is that what I went through was the toughest thing I've ever had to deal with."

Indian Wells' arrival means a bitter memory for Fish, but that only goes for last year. In the 2008 semifinals, Fish staged one of those "zoning," unstoppable performances in a 6-3, 6-2 victory over Federer. The Swiss great had a 41-match winning streak against American players going into that match, and it was the first time in six meetings that Fish had beaten him.

"Mardy was really impossible to beat today," Federer had said. "This match was never in doubt. Let's not talk about No. 98 in the world (Fish's ranking at the time). We all know how good Mardy can be."

If he has a bit of the magic left, he can still be the best American man on tour, and without question the most entertaining to watch. Beneath the surface, and all the attention bestowed upon the game's marquee celebrities, his is a story worth following.

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