Mardy Fish Attempts Comeback After 18 Months Away From Tennis
These days, tennis comebacks arrive in all shapes and sizes, driven by injury, illness, burnout or suspension, sometimes after years away from the professional tours.
Just this month, three notable players — Juan Martín del Potro, Tommy Haas and Laura Robson — will resume competition after long injury layoffs.
But in the poignant department, few compare to Mardy Fish.
Once a top-10 player and the highest-ranked American man, Fish had his late-career resurgence derailed three years ago because of a heart problem that morphed into a more insidious psychological impediment. At his worst, Fish had hourly panic attacks and was unable to leave his house for months.
He left the ATP Tour 18 months ago, seemingly for good, dabbled in lower-tier professional golf and became a father.
Now he is back for a last go — if for nothing else than to “reaffirm that I can still play the game,” Fish, 33, said.
He announced on Twitter in January that he would return to singles competition at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., which begins this week.
Speaking by phone Wednesday, Fish said he had felt robbed of the chance to leave tennis on his own terms.
“I wanted a different route out of the game,” he said while preparing to practice with 11th-ranked Grigor Dimitrov in Manhattan Beach, Calif. “I’ve afforded myself the opportunity to at least try to play one more time.”
Fish’s actions and words suggested a desire to end his career on a happier note. Last summer he entertained the idea of teaming up in doubles with Andy Roddick at the United States Open. They were denied because Roddick, who retired in 2012, could not conform to doping protocols.
The deeper feeling that Fish had been somehow cheated continued to chew him up.
Marriage, fatherhood and financial security were not enough. So in December, Fish told his family and close friends that he had decided to rejoin the circuit.
“I was not secretive, but I kept it close to the vest for a while,” he said.
Fish has a protected ranking of No. 25, which means he can gain direct entry to as many as nine ATP Tour events (excluding wild cards) over the next 32 weeks. That would take him to Sept. 7, in time for one last stop at the United States Open.
He says he dreams of playing in New York, on the lawns of Wimbledon again or across the globe at the Australian Open, though such far-flung trips appear unrealistic.
Fish is still on anti-anxiety medication. He remains in therapy. He usually wears a heart-rate monitor when he practices. He has traveled outside the country only twice since competing at Wimbledon in 2012 — to Canada and the Bahamas.
But he is light-years from where he was. He can sleep alone. He has pushed himself in practice matches without incident. Last month, he flew cross-country by himself.
“It sounds crazy, but that’s actually a huge step for me,” Fish said.
His professional comeback will commence with baby steps. He has entered only the two Masters tournaments at Indian Wells and Key Biscayne, Fla., this month. Then he will reassess.
“It’s certainly not a full-fledged comeback,” Fish said. “I don’t think I can ever do that again.”
Indian Wells is a logical site for his return. It is easy driving distance from Fish’s home in Los Angeles. He has also enjoyed success at the tournament. In 2008, he beat Roger Federer on his way to a runner-up finish to top-ranked Novak Djokovic.
Fish’s last match was Aug. 21, 2013, when he retired in the third round at the Winston-Salem Open against Jarkko Nieminen of Finland, trailing, 7-5, 6-7 (3), 3-2. He has played six tournaments and nine matches in the last 26 months.
He is realistic about his place in the game.
He has few expectations and does not care about rankings. He is not sure where his level is, though he says he has won “a lot of practice matches.”
Fish was in some minds the most gifted player among a reputable generation of American men that included Roddick, James Blake, Robby Ginepri and Taylor Dent. Long on talent but short on discipline, Fish rededicated himself in his late 20s, producing his best season at age 30 in 2011. He finished the year No. 8.
Fish’s heart problems struck shortly thereafter in March 2012. A form of cardiac arrhythmia was eventually diagnosed, and he underwent a cardiac catheter ablation that May.
He skipped the French Open that spring but played on for the next few months. He withdrew before a fourth-round match against Federer at the 2012 United States Open because of a panic attack. He attempted another comeback six months later, but after six events and nine matches, he ended it.
Fish, who has earned more than $7.3 million in prize money, insisted his return was not financially motivated or indicative of ennui.
He says, simply, that he is better. He has learned to incrementally manage each new anxiety-provoking situation.
“Time has healed most of it,” he said.
Those in his inner circle — his wife, Stacey, his parents and his close friends — worry about how he will handle the pressure cooker on a big stage like Indian Wells. But all are supportive, Fish said. His fellow Americans are pulling for him, too.
Roddick said in an email that he had practiced with Fish a couple of times recently and that he looked good.
Bob Bryan said in an email: “He still has a lot of mileage left on his body and I feel he has a lot of good tennis left in his future.”
For the past three months, Fish practiced mostly at the U.S.T.A. national training facility at Carson, Calif., under the watchful eye of the veteran coach David Nainkin. Fish has hit with top players from U.C.L.A. and several young American pros like Stefan Kozlov. Fish has shed 20 pounds as he worked himself back into playing shape.
At times, he said, he questioned whether he could attain “any sort of level to not embarrass myself.”
Last month, Fish played alongside his friend Mark Knowles at a Challenger tournament in Dallas, where they reached the quarterfinals.
Speaking publicly about his psychological struggles has elicited a flood of positive feedback, Fish said, and his return to world-class athletics is not only a personal journey.
“There are millions and millions of people that struggle from it,” he said of mental illness. “It can be beaten. It can be conquered. I’m going to try and show people that it’s possible at the highest level.”