- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Everyone loves a reclamation project.
The "Biggest Loser" and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" show us that when you have fallen a long, long way, it is still possible to overcome. Even if you weigh 400 pounds or lost your house to foreclosure.
When you are a successful professional tennis player, the swing from being ranked inside the top 20 to outside the top 100 might not seem as dramatic. But in the reality show that is Mardy Fish's life, the slow, downward spiral probably felt that way.
In a decade of professional tennis, Fish has carved out a nice little living. He has made nearly $4 million, married well and moves freely about the world, but he never made the full commitment to his craft. Lazy is the word that comes up when you talk to tennis people.
Now, at the relatively advanced age of 28, the light finally has gone on.
After undergoing knee surgery in September, he launched a life-changing assault on his soft, 6-foot-2, 205-pound body. Taking advantage of an enforced break from tennis, Fish sold out in the gym six days a week and completely changed the profile of his diet, trading protein for carbohydrates.
The results are startling. Fish, with a religious intensity, lost more than 25 pounds -- in six weeks. Moving around the grandstand court here at the Sony Ericsson on Tuesday, he looked lean, willowy -- even gangly.
After rocking No. 3-ranked Andy Murray in the second round, Fish was asked if he wished he had been more disciplined earlier in his career.
"I mean, I haven't thought about it," Fish said reflectively. "You know, maybe. Yeah, it would have been nice to be maybe as mentally mature at 20 as I am now. But I wasn't, so no use in "
If tennis was television, Fish would have taken down Mikhail Youzhny and advanced to the quarterfinals, then disappeared into the golden-tinged palm trees of South Beach with his first-ever ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title.
It didn't quite happen that way.
Fish, brought to a grimacing halt by a sciatica injury sustained in a fall, limped away from his fourth-round match after 54 minutes, retiring after losing seven of eight games to the No. 13-seeded Russian. He felt a searing flash in his backside, which traveled all the way down to his calf.
"I don't think I've ever felt that much pain on a tennis court," Fish told reporters later. "Just excruciating pain. I mean, I was just doubled over. I couldn't hardly breathe."
Fish, who was ranked as high as No. 17 in 2004, enjoyed a long run as the United State's third-best singles player, after good friends Roddick and James Blake. But as injuries and questions about his fitness mounted, he gradually fell down the ladder to his present resting place, No. 101. Fish is listed behind fellow Americans Michael Russell, Rajeev Ram, Taylor Dent and HGH-carrying Wayne Odesnik.
Fish cast aside the pizza and cheeseburgers and french fries and loaded up on vegetables and, appropriately, fish. Working vigorously with USTA fitness coach Rodney Marshall, Fish replaced fat with muscle.
This journey to the fourth round was his best effort ever at Miami, and his ranking next week will be hovering in the mid-80s. His results this year have been encouraging; he reached the semifinals at both Sydney and Delray Beach.
Fish always seems to enjoy the big moments -- and still has the tools to successfully execute in those queasy times. He beat three top-10 players on his way to the 2008 Indian Wells final, including Roger Federer. Still, his 6-4, 6-4 victory over Murray was an eye-opener. The blustery Scotsman was the defending champion here and seems poised to score a Grand Slam breakthrough. But there was Fish, serving well and moving even better.
"I feel like I can steal a few more points than I did before sort of with my legs now than before," Fish said. "I mean, that takes time to be able to figure out that style of play and shots that I have never hit before in my life. Sort of being able to get to shots or putting air under balls so I can stay in points -- I'd just never done that before.
"I can practice longer hours, and I can do things maybe days before tournaments than I haven't been before. I just feel like a completely different person confidence-wise, just being able to walk around feeling like an actual athlete that's in pretty good shape."
An actual athlete?
It came at a terribly steep price.
After his postmatch news conference, Fish was asked specifically which food he missed the most.
"Pizza," he said quickly.
With what on it?
"Anything," he said, savoring the thought.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
23hBrando Simeo Starkey, The Undefeated staff writer