Everything’s going to be OK.
That’s what Mardy Fish told himself over and over again during his opening round match on Monday at the U.S. Open, a 6–7 (5), 6–3, 6–1, 6–3 victory over Italian Marco Cecchinato. The match could have been Fish’s last of his career—he announced earlier this summer that he’d retire after the U.S. Open—but instead, it served a new beginning for an American once ranked as high as No. 7 in the world.
Three years ago, Fish withdrew from the U.S. Open ahead of a fourth-round matchup with Roger Federer because he was overwhelmed with anxiety. He had suffered an anxiety attack during his previous match against Gilles Simon, still somehow managing to pull out a four-set victory well after midnight. It was the last victory that Fish, now 33, would have at the U.S. Open—until Monday.
Though Fish largely dominated the final three sets against Cecchinato, his victory didn’t come easily. Up a break and serving for the first set, Fish failed to hold serve and Cecchinato won the first-set tiebreak, 7-5. Fish, who hasn’t played best-of-five set tennis since the 2012 U.S. Open, grew concerned that he wouldn’t be able to handle the physicality of at least three more sets in humid conditions. He said after the match that he worried when he lost serve at 5-5 in the first set that he’d be “in for a really long day,” and not just physically. Even though he has much better control over his anxiety today, it’s still something he’s forced to think about every day, including when he’s on the court.
“There [are] a lot of things that most players out here don’t have to deal with that I have to deal with in those circumstances,” Fish said after the match.
In front of a supportive, enthusiastic Grandstand crowd, Fish started well but appeared jittery in the first set, recording 24 unforced errors.
Fish said he hoped to get through his opening match—a favorable draw against the world’s No. 102 player—quickly to protect himself from anxiety, something he still deals with on a daily basis. But this time around, even after losing the first set, he was able to remain composed.
“I spent a lot of time on the court today telling myself that I’m going to be OK,” Fish said. “That comes from just learning every experience and episode that I’ve had, the struggle that I’ve had and what I’ve worked so hard to get myself to.”
After his 2012 U.S. Open anxiety episode, which Fish attributes to the pressure of expectations, the former top-10 player drifted away from tennis. He played sparingly in 2013, and he didn’t compete in 2014, electing to pursue golf.
But Fish returned to the court this year, and he earned his first victory in 2015 earlier this month in Cincinnati against then-No. 20 Viktor Troicki, a surprise result. The following match, Fish pushed Andy Murray, ultimately falling 4–6, 6–7(1) to the World No. 3 player.
Fish has been outspoken about his anxiety. He points out that there are millions of Americans that deal with anxiety disorder on a daily basis, including other athletes, some of whom he has spoken to privately.
“I just hope to help people,” Fish said. “It helps me [to] talk about it, and if it helps me to talk about it, maybe it helps other people to talk about it. I’ve heard from lots of people throughout the past couple years that are thankful that I’m doing it.”
Fish said earlier this summer that he wanted to “conquer” the U.S. Open, where he had his lowest moment in 2012. But he also said that conquering the Open didn’t even entail winning—it just meant taking the court to confront his demons.
He was able to accomplish both on Monday, gaining control of the match in the second set after letting the first set slip away. He cruised to victory.
“Three years ago, that would have been really tough. I have come a long way and worked really hard with it,” Fish said. “I don’t take it for granted.”