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Farewell, Nemo

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In 1984, Milos Forman released AMADEUS, a movie that went on to receive awards and prizes all over the world. The film (based on a fictional play written by Peter Schaffer) told the story of the musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his relationship with a lesser known classical composer, the Italian Antonio Salieri. The gist of this relationship (in the play and film) was the enormous level of jealousy that Salieri, a much less talented composer, had towards Mozart, usually considered one of the greatest composers of all time (perhaps together with Bach and Beethoven) .
In 1988, the greatest baseball film of all time was similar in subject. BULL DURHAM (and I will not tolerate doubts about this film’s greatness) tells the story of the thoughtful, insightful, hardworking minor league catcher Crash Davis (played by the dashing Kevin Costner) and the rookie phenomenon Ebby Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh (played by an irrepressible Tim Robbins). Both films deal with one of the greatest injustices of life: that of the uneven split of talent that plagues mankind. Salieri, in AMADEUS, complains to God, “Why implant the desire (to be a great musician)… and then deny me the talent?!” In BULL DURHAM, Davis tells Laloosh that he dislikes him because Laloosh disrespects himself and therefore, disrespects the game. “When you were a baby, the gods reached down and turned your right arm into a thunderbolt. You got a Hall of Fame arm, but you are pissing it away!”
(For consolation, Crash gets the girl at the end, the lovely Susan Sarandon, not a menial prize).
This divine allowance of talent is very well seen in sports and arts, where only the greatest ones achieve legendary status. And, as we reach the U.S. Open during this season, we will see the Great Mardy Fish retire, playing one final match at Flushing Meadows before putting his racquet down.
Now, let’s be clear Fish is an extremely talented player. You don’t reach number 7 in the ATP ranking (or hit a 370 feet home run in batting practice at Shea Stadium) unless you have ample amounts of athleticism in you. But in the same manner that Antonio Salieri had to deal with Mozart’s Echni Kleine Nachtmusik (or Crash Davis’ deal with Laloosh’s fictional 95 MPH fastball), Fish has had to deal in his career with Roger Federer’s witchcraft (they are contemporaries), Andy Rodick’s heat, Djokovic’s speed and Nadal’s brute force. Fish has reaped considerable success, winning 6 ATP titles, but he will most likely not make the Hall of Fame. So why should we pay attention to the retirement of a player so short on credentials?
Because Mardy Fish should be an example to every weekend hacker. Those of us that go on a court and try to imitate Federer or Djokovic should in reality try to imitate Fish. Certainly, Fish’ forehand is a wonderful stroke, but the difference between his shot and (for example) Federer’s is that Fish LEARNED it. Fish was not born with that smooth, elegant swing that produces a clean shot that often results in a winner. The same can be said about his gorgeous backhand volley: you can tell it has been years and years of repetition, of training that muscle memory so that when the passing shot was reaching him the correct racquet angle and distance in front of the body was achieved, resulting in a gorgeous stroke.
Nobody denies that the great ones love the sport, but there is something to be said about how that love comes also from the results. It would be difficult not to love something that you do so well that you win Wimbledon or any other major. In Fish’s case, his love for the game comes not from the results (they are not there) but from the process: that slow, methodical climb up the ranking, knowing that you are getting better bit by bit. Fish is a reminder that the destination is almost meaningless unless you enjoy the journey.
Fish, of course, was not always like that. He started paying attention to his physical conditioning only later in his career, a further lesson we can take from him: it is never too late to give one more effort. In Fish’s case, he dropped thirty pounds late in the 2009 season, coming in the best shape of his life to the 2010 tour. Yes, people may mock a man that decides to renounce pizzas and hamburgers, but give it a try. It is a small sacrifice, but success is built on small sacrifices. If you can’t make a small one, after all, how can you expect to make a big one?
Fish stands in sharp contrast to other players that ooze talent and yet, in true Laloosh style, piss it away. He joins players such as Jose Luis Clerc, David Ferrer and all of those that enjoyed tremendous success because of enormous amounts of hard work. Yes, Grand Slam champions they are not, but they retired (or will) with the sound knowledge that there are no “What ifs?” when it comes to effort. They gave it all. Perhaps a little more luck would have helped but they treated the game with respect, and they followed their desire to the fullest. God did not give them that extra little quota of talent but, like Crash Davis, maybe they got a different prize. Something well earned and, perhaps, even more precious.
Fish will certainly not be done with tennis. Captaincy of the US Davis Cup team is not only possible, but (I believe) very likely. Fish is a “learned” player and could be a wonderful coach, a man that went through many an hour of hard work, and many more of examining and learning the game to the fullest. Any young tennis Mozart that tells Fish that he does not know what he is talking about will be taken aside by an assistant coach and will get a stern lecture on respect, after which Fish would (I assume) resume his teaching. Pity on the fool that would walk away from that.
In AMADEUS, the final scene shows Salieri “absolving mediocrities everywhere”. Crash Davis gets to hear Anny Savoy tell him that she believes he will make a great coach in the Major Leagues one day. And, even though Mardy Fish is in no sense mediocre, and he did make the major leagues, as he retires we can all stand up and clap our hands raw in salute to a player that if you paid a bit of attention to, was worthy of all our respect.
We, the real mediocre, thank him and salute him. And wish him the very best.

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