US Open: The legacy of Mardy Fish begins in retirement

It was a hot Wednesday morning at the Louis Armstrong Stadium in Flushing Meadows, New York. Unseeded American home favourite Mardy Fish was facing the 18th-seed Spaniard Feliciano Lopez in a marathon five-setter. Fish was serving for the match in the fourth set at 5-4 – the win and a place in the third round was in sight.

He was broken by Lopez and lost the set. The crowd was silenced.

Mardy Fish bid goodbye to the sport on his own terms as he bowed after a second round loss. Getty

Mardy Fish bid goodbye to the sport on his own terms as he bowed after a second round loss. Getty

Fish then had multiple break points at 2-2 and 3-3 in the fifth, only for Lopez to save all of them. Every point he won was cheered loudly but as the three-hour battle drew a close with Fish cramping up and unable to move, the realization that these were the final few minutes of his career spread across the anxious faces in the crowd.

Anxious – I use that word carefully for 33-year old Mardy Fish has missed the majority of the last three years because of anxiety disorders and a heart problem. He had chosen to play this US Open because he wanted to retire on the court, not off it.

Three years ago he was forced to step away from the game he loves at a point when he had reached his highest career ATP ranking. But he returned this summer because he felt he deserved a proper goodbye.

“I’m not playing my best tennis by any means. It’s more of a personal thing to go out on my own terms,” Fish told USA Today in an interview before the tournament. “No one wants to be taken away from the game the way I was. What do you do? This is the only thing I’ve done well my whole life and I’ve done it exceptionally well. It’s really personal.”

"He was the better player and deserved to win this match. I was very lucky," said Mardy Fish’s final opponent, Lopez after the win. “It's very sad what has happened to him with his illness in recent years. We played many times and he was often the better player."

In a very personal and moving account of what he has gone through over the last few years, Fish bravely details his struggles for website Player’s Tribune. He writes about the highs of his career, finally breaking into the world top 10 and then, how in 2012, at US Open it all came crashing down under the lights at the Arthur Ashe stadium against French player Gilles Simon.

“It just kept spiraling and spiraling to the point where I couldn’t control it,” Fish writes. “I had no idea what was going on, tennis-wise. No idea. I don’t remember a thing. Somehow I ended up winning the next three games, and the set, and the match. But I don’t remember it at all.”

Mardy Fish in the against Giles Simon in US Open 2012 - the only time he would suffer from a panic attack on court. AFP

Mardy Fish in the against Giles Simon in US Open 2012 - the only time he would suffer from a panic attack on court. AFP

“Once it happened to me on the court, I knew. Nothing would be the same again.”

And it wasn’t. Driving to the stadium for his quarter-final against Roger Federer, Fish recalls how it dawned on him - on his wife's insistence - that he couldn’t get on the court again because he couldn’t bear the thought of breaking down on such a big occasion. With his wife encouraging him, Fish put down his racket and stepped away from the biggest game of his career and more importantly, away from the game that he loved.

The Anxiety Disorders Association of America estimates that 3.3 million Americans over the age of 18 -- around 1.5 per cent of the population -- suffer from the disorder every year. but there is no way of knowing how many more suffer silently, who don’t speak up because showing weakness is anathema, especially for athletes.

That’s the significance of Fish’s final flourish. It isn’t just a farewell, it’s a statement. A call of hope to thousands around the world who struggle with this issue but are hesitant to talk about it.

There is a line in a famous Tamil song, written by the legendary Vairamuthu, that describes the heartache experienced by a divorced couple. A line for the man goes: “Thinking it was a shame to cry on the outside, I cry every night in my house with the lights switched off.”

And that’s exactly what Fish wants to change. He writes:

"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.

In fact I’m writing this, in a lot of ways, for the express purpose of showing weakness. I’m writing this to tell people that weakness is okay. I’m here to tell people that it’s normal.

And that strength, ultimately, comes in all sorts of forms."

There is no happy ending to Fish's tale. It is a window into the gritty underbelly of the glitzy sports world with its neat narratives of victory and defeat, not a sports movie with a sports movie ending, as he evocatively puts it.

“I won’t be riding off into the sunset, lifting a trophy,” he writes. “This is a life story. This is a story about how a mental health problem took my job away from me. And about how, three years later, I am doing that job again — and doing it well. I am playing in the U.S. Open 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.”

As Fish takes leave from the sport, he seeks to leave a mark that should - that will - inspire his fellow athletes. Not just to speak about it eventually after the careers are done, but to start a conversation before its not too late to turn back.

Unlike other sporting legends who make their name based on what they did during their career, Fish's legacy begins in retirement.

Thanks for sharing, Mardy Fish.

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Please do yourself a favour and read the full article written by Mardy Fish for the Player's Tribune.

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Updated Date: Oct 19, 2015 20:07:47 IST

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