Column: Mardy Fish shares moments his life ‘was a living hell’ with hope it can help others

Mardy Fish hits a return during a 2015 exhibition doubles match at the U.S. Open
Mardy Fish hits a return during a 2015 exhibition doubles match at the U.S. Open.
(Adam Hunger / Associated Press)

More than two days after Netflix had released “Untold: Breaking Point,” the latest episode in its sports-themed documentary series, its central figure — the man whose tennis career is detailed in honest, thought-provoking detail — hadn’t watched it yet.

Mardy Fish lived the story at the center of the documentary. In interviews with sibling producers Maclain and Chapman Way, Fish relieved the progression of the crippling anxiety disorder that brought him down from the peak of the tennis world and led him to withdraw from his fourth-round match against Roger Federer at the 2012 U.S. Open. Sometimes, he had to tell the interviewers to pause so he could compose himself. “I’m not much of a crier,” Fish said, “but I had to kind of catch myself from doing that.”

Other people have seen it. He knows that from the messages that have blown up his phone, calls, social media chatter and the praise deservedly sent his way for being so public about what he has gone through and for helping make mental health issues more mainstream and acceptable for open discussion. “It’s just really humbling,” he said during a phone interview from Los Angeles, “to know that your story can help people.”

Like Naomi Osaka, who decided to exit the French Open, Mardy Fish once stepped away from a successful tennis career because of mental health issues.


But Fish hasn’t been able to bring himself to view the documentary, and not only because he doesn’t like the sound of his own voice.

“The reason I haven’t watched it yet is it was a really, really hard time in my life. I’m planning on watching it. I’m excited to watch it,” he said. “I know that most of it is not necessarily a mental health sort of piece, that the Way brothers are phenomenal at directing, writing, producing, all that stuff. Just haven’t wrapped my head around it….

“You’ve got to remember, too, I was at the top of my career. And it was all taken away. And looking back on that, you know, ‘Gosh what if I didn’t have to deal with that and I was just kind of a top 10 player and just continuing to sort of play high-end tennis, where would that have taken me? Would that have taken me to a Grand Slam final? Would that have won me a Masters event?’ I have no idea. But I got real close at least on the latter.”

Fish is featured along with Andy Roddick, his contemporary and childhood friend as they moved toward tennis stardom. Roddick became a Grand Slam singles champion and the top-ranked male player in the word; Fish was talented and won a silver medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics tennis tournament but he wasn’t always conscientious about his conditioning. A commitment to fitness allowed him to break into the top 10 in 2011 and reach his goal of qualifying for the year-ending men’s tour event in London. He was the only American among the eight invited players.

Naomi Osaka lost to Leylah Fernandez in the third round of the U.S. Open, then said she needs another break from tennis to deal with mental health issues.

The pressure that came with his newly elevated status began to gnaw at him, but he suffered in silence. “I didn’t know where to go. No one knew what I was going through,” Fish said in the documentary. “I had trained myself to show no weakness. Telling other people about it was showing weakness and I didn’t know how to handle that, so I just kept it in.” He had a panic attack on court during his third-round match against Gilles Simon at the 2012 U.S. Open. He told himself he had to keep playing. Even now, he doesn’t remember the rest of the match.

His anxiety intensified while he was traveling by car to play his U.S. Open match against Federer. He felt trapped, scared. His wife, Stacey, told him he didn’t have to play. “The thought of pulling out was unheard of,” he said, but he did it. The tennis world was stunned. He withdrew from competition and what had been his normal life, unable to function.

“Tennis had just been taken away from me completely. My life at that time was a living hell,” he said in the documentary. “All I wanted to do was curl up in a dark room. I sat in my house for months. I would start thinking the worst of things.”

U.S. gymnast Simone Biles says her belief you must ‘put mental health first before your sport’ prompted her to withdraw from team competition.

He eventually found a child psychologist who said he had severe anxiety disorder. The psychologist, he said, “talked me through how to change the narrative of my thought process when it went into bad places. Showing weakness and showing fear and letting people in was a huge part of my comeback.” He was able to come back and play before finally retiring in 2015. He first came forward with his story in the Players’ Tribune that year.

Fish now works in finance and is the captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team, a significant honor. He was asked by Stacey Allaster, chief executive of the U.S. Tennis Assn., to help create an initiative that would provide mental health support to players at this year’s U.S. Open, and he gladly accepted.

The mental health issues experienced by Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from the French Open and skipped Wimbledon to deal with depression and social anxiety, have brought new attention to the topic. The conversation isn’t limited to tennis: gymnast Simone Biles and NBA player Kevin Love are among the prominent athletes who have been outspoken about their struggles, and other tennis players here have spoken about their reliance on psychologists to help them maintain their equilibrium.

L.A. Times columnists Helene Elliott, LZ Granderson, Dylan Hernández and Bill Plaschke discuss Naomi Osaka, the role of media, athletes’ mental health and more.

Fish has empathy for Osaka, who said after her third-round loss at the U.S. Open that she plans to take another break from tennis.

“Because I know her, I know that she understands her place in history. I know she really cares about that stuff and wants to be one of the greatest players ever, and so for her to just pull out of a Grand Slam where she’s going for the third in a row and she really understands what that means, that really jumped out at me,” he said. “Especially people that were negative about it or were saying, ‘Oh, she’s just using this because she doesn’t want to talk to the press or anything like that.’

“That was sort of disappointing to hear that part of it and certainly with Simone Biles it was disappointing to hear that side of it as well. Do you think that Simone Biles would pull out of the Olympics, something she trained for, obviously, a bare minimum the last four years — five years — but certainly her whole life? I know she’s won a ton of gold medals and a ton of stuff, just to pull out because she was scared to do it? Come on, you can’t actually think that. Or if you do think that, you’re not really educated well on mental health or what that is.”

His frankness in “Untold: Breaking Point” should go a long way toward educating anyone who’s willing to listen. “I really wanted people to understand beating the stigma of, ‘Hey suck it up,’ is really important,” he said, “because it’s not as easy as that.”