By Bill Simons
Why do bad things happen to good people?
Tennis example No. 1 – Arthur Ashe, the conscience of our sport, the giving and thoughtful humanitarian and activist – was felled by AIDS.
Mardy Fish is no Arthur Ashe. But, for years, the laid back, smart and funny LA player known for his quick quips and devastating backhand had been beloved in the locker room. Yes, he was not as good a tennis player as Andy Roddick. He didn’t play poker as well as James Blake. Then again, don’t ask Pete Sampras about how great a golfer Mardy is. Pete will not warm up to the topic.
But, these first few days of the Open, when fans haven’t been obsessing over Serena, they have been warming up to Fish’s feel-good story of fear, doubt, anxiety, reflection and redemption.
It’s a fairy tale that should have had another chapter today. Fish was serving in the fourth set to win his second-round match against Spanish veteran Feliciano Lopez. But nerves got to him. He faltered badly. Then, in the decisive fifth set, he twice had golden opportunities before his body gave out. He felt twinges. He bent over in the heat. He cramped. He stretched. His effort to call a trainer fell flat – it was too late. He lost.
But Fish gained countless hearts. Many knew his backstory. The likable former No. 1 American and Olympic silver medalist was long a vastly talented underachiever. Never mind that his serve punished and his backhand was among the best. The guy just seemed to like to play in the shadow of his high school basketball teammate Roddick. He didn’t work as hard as he might have until he surged late in his career.
Then, when at last he seemed to have things in gear, frightening heart arrhythmias led to a racing heart and daunting late-night panic attacks. As if that wasn’t enough, he developed a perplexing anxiety disorder, which emerged in 2012. His ranking had risen, but so had his self-doubt.
In the Players’ Tribune, Mardy recalled his implosion:
“I had to play a night match in the third round against Gilles Simon…Night matches at the Open are reserved for the best pairings…After years and years of being on the outside…I was part of it. I wasn’t playing in someone else’s match. I was playing in ‘The Mardy Fish Match’…But it was also stressful…I was on edge the whole time: fist-pumping, throwing my racquet, and feeling…anxious. I was anxiety-ridden.
And I’ll never forget when it happened – the first, and only, anxiety attack I would have on a tennis court…I looked at the clock. It said 1:15 am…My mind started spiraling downward in this snowball of thoughts:
1:15. Oh my gosh – it’s so late. I’m going to feel terrible tomorrow. We’re going to play this long match…and I’m going to have to do press after… and then I’m going to have to stretch…and I’m going to feel bad about that…
It just kept spiraling…I couldn’t control it.”
Mardy couldn’t remember a thing, but he did recall the moments before he was scheduled to play Roger Federer in the next round. He wrote:
“I am hours away from playing in the biggest tennis match of my life: the fourth round of the US Open…on Labor Day…on my dad’s birthday…on Arthur Ashe…on CBS…against Roger…I’m hours away from playing the match that you work for, that you sacrifice for, for an entire career.
And…I literally can’t do it…I’m having several anxiety attacks…My mind starts spiraling. I’m just freaking out.
My wife is asking me, “What can we do?…And I tell her, “The only thing that makes me feel better right now…is the idea of not playing this match…She answers plainly…”You don’t have to play. Just don’t play”…Oh god, I thought…I’m not going to go out there, anxious, in front of 22,000 people. I’m not going to play Roger.”
Mardy didn’t play that night or much over the next three years. Instead he went on a quest for healing which began simply enough by googling “anxiety” and “panic attack.” The man who once adored the solitary life of a nomadic player now realized he had to have his wife by his side every night. His parents had to travel to tournaments. He couldn’t be alone. Still, in the end Fish spoke of his great memories. He told the media what’s most important is “that you can beat it. That you can put yourself back…and pull yourself right back in the fire and come through…I showed that.”
Now, Mardy confided, “I can put my head on my pillow every night — I’m very comfortable knowing how hard I have worked…[I’m] just at peace…I’m not looking for everyone to bow down when I leave the room and carry my racquets out today. I accomplished everything that I set out to this summer, and I’m happy.”
As for his anxiety disorder, Mardy said, “I was open and honest about a topic that is not supposed to be masculine. We are trained as tennis players… to not show weakness. I was very good at that throughout my career. I want to help people that have gone through it and try to be a role model for people that are deep into some bad times, that they can get out of it, because I was there. They can conquer it.”
In the Players’ Tribune piece, Fish wrote:
“It’s important that my story not have a sports vocabulary…This is a story about how a mental health problem took my job away from me. And about how, three years later, I…[did] that job again.
This is a story about how, with the right education, and conversation, and treatment, and mindset, the things that mental illness takes away from us – we can take them back…Millions of Americans deal with issues related to mental health. And the journey of dealing with them, and learning to live with them, is a long one. It can be a forever one. Or, worse, it can be a life-threatening one.
And I want to help…Keeping the conversation going…is also part of that. Mental health is not a very easy thing to talk about in sports…To show weakness, we’re told, in so many words, is to deserve shame.
But I am here to show weakness. And I am not ashamed…I’m here to tell people that it’s normal.
And that strength, ultimately, comes in all sorts of forms.
Addressing your mental health is strength…Before the biggest match of your career, prioritizing your mental health enough to say, You don’t have to play. You don’t have to play. Don’t play….
That, too, is strength.”