INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Former No. 7 Mardy Fish played his first match in 18 months on Thursday, losing 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (3) to fellow American Ryan Harrison in the first round of the BNP Paribas Open. Harrison, ranked No. 110, saved two match points in the third set to earn his first win in four tries against Fish, who has been sidelined since August 2013 due to his battle with anxiety. Harrison will play No. 5 Kei Nishikori in the second round.
Fish, an Indian Wells finalist in 2011, received a strong ovation from the crowd as he made his way on court, with the scattered crowd growing in number as the match wore on. The rust was evident early in the first set, as Fish struggled to find his range while swirling winds overtook the court. But as the match went on he found his rhythm, and while it was short of the form that took him into the Top 10 in 2011, Fish slowly found his game. His vaunted serve came online and allowed him to hold easier and his whipping forehand began to find the court.
No one wants to spend over two and a half hours under the searing sun in tough conditions only to walk away with a first round loss, but this was precisely the test Fish needed as he tries to make a definitive decision on his career. He competed well throughout the match and appeared to be enjoying himself, letting out a wry smile after bad misses but also showing intensity after missed opportunities.
Those missed chances were the story of the match. Fish went 3 for 15 on break points, two of which were match points. Harrison, who has climbed up 81 spots in the rankings since the start of the season, played remarkably confident tennis when he was down in the score and never blinked when he had a chance to break, going 3 for 3 on break points. The younger American looked poised to take the win in straight sets but double-faulted on set point to give Fish the second set.
Watch one of those moments of levity below:
"That's one of the things I need to do on the court is to be pretty even keeled and positive," Fish said. "I used to be very hard on myself at times, a lot of times, really. It's something I have to do. If I don't then I can get into trouble. It's something I've worked on with my sports psychologist, what kind of mind frame you need out there."
Harrison saved three break points to hold from 0-40 down early in the third set and built a 4-2 lead before Fish was able to break back to level the match at 4-4. With Harrison serving at 4-5, Fish played his best point of the match, punctuated by a searing forehand winner, to earn two match points at 15-40. Harrison gamely saved both and then played the more consistent tennis in the tiebreaker to seal the win.
"It felt fantastic to be out there," Fish said, who said the loss stung. "I've worked really hard to get back in shape so I don't have any issues during a match or after a match. I've worked extremely hard to put myself in the best position to not worry about things while I'm out there because if I was out of shape or if I didn't feel well or if it was going to be a long, hot match, a lot of things creep into your head."
Fish's physical issues began in 2012 at the U.S. Open where he withdrew before he was set to face Roger Federer in the fourth round due to an irregular heartbeat. After undergoing minor surgery to correct a heart arrhythmia, Fish struggled with frequent panic attacks and anxiety. Prior to Thursday's match, Fish's last match was a retirement at the Winston-Salem Open in 2013. During his time away from tennis he sought help to manage his panic attacks and remains on anxiety medication today. After Thursday's match, he will now reassess how to go forward. He is not entered in the Sony Open in Miami and may not play in Europe, but seemed to hint the U.S. Open could be an option.
"It's going to be limited because of my protected ranking," Fish said. Fish can use his protected ranking to enter as many as nine ATP tournaments. "It will run out. I don't have much interest in going down to the minor leagues and playing and trying to work my way up rankings-wise."