The darkest days are fading. There is golf, fatherhood and an increased sense of satisfaction and containment.
But Mardy Fish’s tennis future is tenuous, at best.
This week marks the anniversary of the 32-year-old American’s last professional match.
On Aug. 21, 2013, Fish retired in the third round at the Winston-Salem Open to Jarkko Nieminen of Finland trailing 7-5, 6-7 (3-7), 3-2. The former No. 7 has barely touched a racket since.
Yet Fish hasn’t made complete peace with the end of his playing days. Somehow he can’t nail the coffin shut on his career.
“I do want to play again,” Fish told USA Today Sports during a 40-minute phone interview last month. “I’m just not sure if I’ll be able to. It’s still a daily struggle and a daily battle,” he said of his career-thwarting anxiety disorder.
Fish and childhood buddy Andy Roddick recently tried to secure a doubles wild card into next week’s U.S. Open before learning Roddick wasn’t eligible under the sport’s drug-testing protocols.
It was perhaps a chance to leave the sport under happier circumstances, or as Fish says: “It would have been a nice way to stop.”
Fish says the lowest moment of his ordeal came when he withdrew minutes before a match against Roger Federer in the fourth round of the 2012 U.S. Open.
Later that day, he panicked as his Los Angeles-bound flight left the gate.
“My wife was there because otherwise I probably wouldn’t have had the guts to do it,” he says. “She jumped up and said we need to get off the plane right now. Pretty embarrassing.”
He and his wife, Stacey, ended up staying in New York five more days before chartering a private jet. Back home, Fish was too afraid to leave the house for three months.
“I was basically getting anxiety attacks every 30 minutes of the day at that time,” he says. “That was the worst of it. They would just never stop.”
At least the crippling panic attacks are no more. He no longer wears a heart-rate monitor at night to sleep.
“I’ve come a long, long way from where I was,” he says.
But he remains on medication and in therapy, and hasn’t been able to travel alone or spend the night by himself since the onset of attacks two years ago.
Sadly, the place where he felt the deepest validation was also the place he felt least secure.
“The most trauma I had was on the tennis court,” he says.
Fish’s troubles started in March of 2012, not long after the Minnesota native engineered a late-career rededication that led to some of the best tennis of his life, including his first top-10 finish the year before.
A condition diagnosed as a form of arrhythmia made his heart race. Eventually, it transmuted into a much more insidious psychological problem.
He played sporadically for much of the next 18 months, competing in nine matches (4-5) in 2013 before pulling the plug at Winston-Salem — again because of a panic attack.
These days, the 6-2 Fish is throwing himself into his fledgling golf career, overseeing his son’s early morning shift, and enjoying life as husband and new dad to 6-month-old Beckett.
Fish won six ATP Tour titles and accumulated more than $7.3 million in prize money but keeps up with tennis sparingly. He is in touch with a handful of players, such as Rodidick, James Blake, Mark Knowles and John Isner.
He has hit three times in the last 12 months.
Now ranked outside the top 1,000, Fish insists he would not come back as a doubles specialist, despite the success of many older players, such as top-ranked twins Bob and Mike Bryan, who are 36.
He misses the one-on-one combat of singles, especially during the hot and steamy North American hardcourt swing, where he thrived.
Instead, Fish has been trying his luck on some golf mini-tours, where he recently shot a career-best 67. He has yet to make a cut.
He considers golf a “savior” and fantasizes of one day competing in the U.S. Open in both golf and tennis. “You dream big and you figure out where you fall,” he says.
His peers haven’t ruled out a return to tennis, though they express caution.
“He’s been away from the game now for a little while,” said Robby Ginepri, 31, of the USA.
Isner, the USA’s top-ranked man at No. 15,said it’s “tough to say” if Fish will ever return.
“In general, he’s happier now than even when he was seven in the world,” Isner said. “I don’t think I’d be surprised either way. I hope he has the itch to come back. It would be great for everyone.”
Fish insists he has no regrets, but occasionally he wonders what might have been and whether he could be tuning up for another run at the U.S. Open, which begins Monday.
“If I never had any mental health issues, there’s no doubt in my mind I’d still be playing,” he says.