American tennis player Mardy Fish ended his professional career yesterday with a loss in the second round at the US Open, sure, but he ended it on his terms. And considering that the last time he played in Flushing, in 2012, he was so consumed by his panic disorder that he has no memory of half a set against Gilles Simon and had to bow out of a career-defining match against Roger Federer, Fish has come a long way.
What strikes me most are the particular contours of his journey—how universal they are—and what they can teach us about facing up to crippling anxiety. “This isn’t a sports story,” Fish writes at The Players’ Tribune. “I didn’t ‘choke’ in Act Two, and I’m not going to ‘win’ in Act Three. This is a life story.”
He’s right—he didn’t “win,” or win. But that wasn’t the point. “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 that process started, for Fish, with someone helping him stand outside his anxiety instead of tumbling down the path he was on. “My thoughts were filling with dread,” he writes. “Would it happen on the court again? Was I going to get an anxiety attack, again, in front of thousands of people?” His wife presented an option that thoroughly escaped him at the time: don’t walk into a setup. “You don’t have to play,” she told him. And he didn’t—but he did begin working towards playing again one day.
The first step towards taking back “the things that mental illness takes away from us,” as Fish puts it, is recognizing what’s going on, and then working to address it. When a kid has severe performance anxiety, the first step in treatment is not to…throw him under the lights at Arthur Ashe against Roger Federer, to pick a random example. One step at a time, Fish writes. “Addressing your mental health is strength. Talking about your mental health is strength. Seeking information, and help, and treatment, is strength.”
That’s a great message, no matter the size of the stage, and we’re happy that Mardy Fish isn’t dropping the ball, as it were, and is “keeping the conversation going, and going, and going.”