By Sunday, the singles in the fourth round of the US Open had started and Mardy Fish, the Davis Cup captain and former tennis star, remembered the moment he was in New York in New York sobbing with his wife Stacey nine years ago, and decided, with her help, that he could not play in the fourth round against Roger Federer.
“It was just crazy fear, crazy, crazy, how am I going to walk on this track?” he said by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “But it would never have occurred to me, if my wife wasn’t there, that I wouldn’t be playing. We are so trained to never show weakness, never show fear, on the other side of the court. But my wife said, ‘Well, you don’t have to play’ — that part there was like I immediately felt better, like a weight was lifted off my shoulders.’
Fish is now 39, a parent to Stacey of two young children. He works in finance and is still involved in professional tennis as captain of the US Davis Cup. But he’s also a mentor who shares his experience as a leading athlete dealing with mental health issues when the topic was almost taboo in professional sports.
“The reason I’m being so vocal or open about it now is that I didn’t have that success story to lean on as I went through it,” he said.
He is friends with Naomi Osaka and her agent Stuart Duguid, and sympathized when Osaka tearfully announced Friday after her third-round defeat at the US Open that she intended to retire indefinitely from the game that no longer delights her. even when she wins.
“I’d tell her, do what makes you happy,” Fish said. “She doesn’t have to hit another tennis ball for the rest of her life, and if that makes her happy, she should. I think she would regret that, but it’s what makes her want to get up in the morning and be happy. And whatever she’s been doing for the past few months, or however long it’s been, isn’t doing it for her right now. So hopefully she will find peace and comfort.”
Fish was housebound for months with repeated anxiety attacks after his New York retreat. He received therapy and medication.
After touring intermittently, he returned to the US Open in 2015 and won a round. It was the happy ending he wished for and is part of the journey he shares in a documentary to be released Tuesday as part of the Netflix series “Untold.”
“Education is really the most important thing,” Fish said. “To try to reach people who have never understood mental health or have had problems with it, or people around them who have had problems with it. To just educate them and just understand that Naomi Osaka isn’t pulling out of the French Open just because she doesn’t want to talk to the press. And Simone Biles isn’t going to compete in the Olympics just because she doesn’t want to lose. The people who think that, and there are a lot of them, that’s just a shame.”
For Fish, one of the keys is to not separate mental health from physical health.
“It’s just health,” Fish said. “They call it mental health, but your brain is part of your body. It’s an injury. You just don’t see it.”
Fish was long regarded as one of the most talented players of his era, but his fitness improved and broke through in 2011 to reach the top 10 and qualify for the eight-man touring championships. But he said his rise also created new expectations and tensions.
“My life changed for the better at first, and then only my body and brain, the way I’m put together, couldn’t handle it,” he said.
In 2012, he started experiencing a pounding heartbeat that would wake him up in the middle of the night and was diagnosed as having a form of arrhythmia. Although he was being treated for the condition, the underlying problem was an anxiety disorder, and while tennis was a haven, he also began to experience panic during his third-round win over Gilles Simon at the 2012 US Open.
“It was like my only comfort was taken from me that night and it basically brought me to a rock bottom, zero serotonin left in my brain,” he said.
“It’s not about being tough. I’m practicing kickboxing and muay Thai now, like, come on, I’m hiring everyone in the ring. You can hit me in the face all you want, and I’ll hit you back. I train that stuff. It’s not about being weak. I was mentally strong. I was a bulldog. To win, I would have sacrificed everything. I’m pitting my competitiveness against someone else’s. That’s not the point. It’s actually the opposite. Showing weakness and that vulnerability is, in my opinion, actually showing strength.”
Fish will mentor at the US Open as part of a new initiative by the United States Tennis Association to provide players with more mental health resources, including on-demand psychologists. Claudia Reardon, the USTA’s new mental health counselor, oversees the program.
“Athletes who talk about their own use of mental health drugs or their own struggles with mental health symptoms or disorders are doing the sport in general a tremendous service in terms of unraveling and normalizing that experience,” Reardon said in a statement. an interview. “Having psychological symptoms isn’t incompatible with high-level sports, and it’s actually a sign of strength to seek help.”
Fish said no player had contacted him during the tournament, but he said “a lot of people” had contacted him since he started talking openly about his condition.
“People you’ve heard of; people you’ve never heard of,” he said. “Coaches, players, from tennis and other sports. It was really nice to be helpful in that way. I’ve built some great relationships as a result, so in that way it was reassuring to know that I wasn’t alone and that other people wanted to be vulnerable too, just not to the world.”
Osaka, like Fish, has taken a more open approach, revealing this year that she has struggled with anxiety and depression since winning her first Grand Slam title at the 2018 US Open. In a roundtable discussion ahead of this year’s Open, they spoke, Fish, Nick Kyrgios and Billie Jean King on multiple topics, including mental health and media relations.
Although Osaka spoke about her desire to focus on the positives of a world-class player before and during the Open, she struggled with her emotions during Friday’s loss to Canadian teenager Leylah Fernandez. She threw her racket and frustrated a ball into the stands, then burst into tears at a press conference. She said she didn’t know when she would play her next tennis match.
“Lately, when I win, I don’t feel happy,” she said. “I feel more relieved. And then when I lose, I feel very sad, and I don’t think that’s normal.”
Fish looked and listened.
“That last press conference was that she was very open,” he said. “I think it’s really important to put yourself first and what you feel is important to you and what makes you happy, and hopefully tennis is there for her. I think that it. I know she understands her place in history. But things out of court have now brought her more than just wins and losses, and it’s a shame, but it’s important for her to make sure she’s comfortable and happy again.”