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Mardy Fish, a now former professional tennis player walked out of the spotlight on center court of the US Open almost two months ago. I waited – partially in deference to the importance of such an incredible performance and partially to allow the mainstream media it’s own moment – before posting this blog mainly because it meant something special to me.
Mardy was 27 years old in 2009 and in the midst of an otherwise solid professional athletic career. he was making a nice living, had some solid results in some of the Grand Slams, and even earned a silver medal in the 2004 Olympics. As Mardy puts it, “I was newly married, and my perspective was changing, growing. And I think I just sort of realized, in a way I previously hadn’t … that nice, as a tennis career, wasn’t good enough for me.” Mardy wanted to do more and went on a personal quest. He changed his diet (dropping from 202 lbs to 172 lbs) and his lifestyle to match this new ethic, and by 2010 he began seeing the results.
Mardy beat Andy Murray in straight sets in Miami, played back-to-back five-setters at the French Open, won the Newport and Atlanta tournaments, and lost the final in Cincinnati to Roger Federer. He beat Andy Roddick and became the #1 ranked American tennis player and, by 2012, became the #8 ranked player in the world. Mardy had reached the elites and physically he was playing at a level that may even have surprised himself. Still, something was off.
“My dissatisfaction with the status quo — that had been so helpful when there were 20 players ranked in front of me — crossed over into something more stressful, and then destructive, I think, when that number became reduced to seven.” Mardy writes. The idea that we just aren’t good enough can be a powerful one. In one way or another, we are all dealing with the issues of doubt and fear. But Mardy had another, equally as serious issue arise; a heart arrhythmia that ultimately required a cardiac ablation (a surgery that involves scarring or destroying tissue in your heart that triggers an abnormal heart rhythm). After the procedure, Mardy once again returned to full physical health. Mentally, Mardy was going through something more.
“I began to get these really weird, new thoughts,” Mardy explained. “Uncomfortable, anxious thoughts. Like I was nervous about something that was going to happen — even though it kept not happening.”
Anxiety and stress is nothing new to players of all levels. But often the higher the level, the greater the pressure. Some try to hide it (and many are very good at it) for fear of indicating to their competitors that they have a weak spot. On the professional level, additional pressures surrounds the “job” aspect – and the fear of owners, sponsors, coaches, and other stakeholders losing confidence in the personal “brand” is every bit as real as those felt in any occupation that relies on similar “performance reviews.”
The Anxiety Disorders Association of America estimates that 3.3 million Americans over the age of 18 — around 1.5 per cent of the population — suffer from the disorder every year. But there is no way of knowing how many more suffer silently, who don’t speak up because showing weakness is anathema, especially for athletes. At times, we are simply not able to deal with this level of stress. It becomes so overwhelming and strong, that a sense of powerlessness and paralyzation begins to develop. That’s exactly what happened to Mardy Fish.
Mardy returned to the court and attempted to resume his elite level of play. “And through it all, I just kept having these … thoughts. This anxiety,” he explained. “I became consumed by this exhausting, confusing dread.” And the attacks… well they got worse.
According to the Physicians Desk Reference, panic attacks are episodes of intense fear associated with at least four of a number of physical symptoms. Among these are “palpitations (feeling your heartbeat), sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, chest pain, and dizziness. There are almost always feelings of impending doom or death. Numbness or tingling sensations in the hands and feet (parathesias), stomach aches or discomfort, and feelings of unreality are usually present as well.” Merck says that they are common – occurring in about 10% of the population each year.
Panic disorder however, which effects about 2% of us each year, is characterized by recurring and unpredictable panic attacks. A person is considered to suffer from panic disorder if he or she suffers at least four separate panic attacks in a one-month period, one of which is spontaneous, with feelings of fear about having another one. This I have personal experience with and let me tell you that there is nothing endearing when you are lost in the throws of terror. For some, like Mardy, it can become progressively severe – going from once or twice a day, to several times a day, to more than one an hour!
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At the 2012 US Open – on Labor Day, Court #1, on CBS – just moments before his fourth round match against Roger Federer, Mardy was in trouble. “We were in the car, driving to my next match against Roger – and my thoughts were filling with dread. Was I going to get an anxiety attack, again, in front of thousands of people? Was I going to get an anxiety attack while trying to do my job?” The thoughts were inescapable. “And just like that, it hit me,” Mardy explained. “I remember it so vividly, and so powerfully. Oh god, I thought. I’m … not going to do it. I’m not going to go out there, anxious, in front of 22,000 people. I’m not going to play Roger.”
Mardy didn’t play that day. Then, he didn’t play at all.
Anxiety took away Mardy Fish’s job.
And now, three years later, Mardy returned to the US Open.
Before the tournament, Mardy wrote about his personal struggle on The Players’ Tribune, a media site founded by Derek Jeter that aims to provide unique insight into the daily sports conversation and publishes first-person stories directly from athletes. You can read Mardy’s full post here.
I’m writing this, in a lot of ways, for the express purpose of showing weakness. I’m writing this to tell people that weakness is okay. I’m here to tell people that it’s normal.
And that strength, ultimately, comes in all sorts of forms.
Make no mistake about it: Mardy is strong.
He won his first round match and entered the second round against Feliciano Lopez as the No. 581-ranked player in the world. He had played five matches this year and had a 2-3 record. This was to be his last tournament, he said, because it was his favorite tournament, the ideal special place for his athletic ending. But he had no illusions of taking home a trophy. “But that’s fine by me,” Mardy writes, “because honestly, this isn’t a sports story. And I think it’s important that my story not have a sports vocabulary. I didn’t choke in Act Two, and I’m not going to win in Act Three. This story is a life story.”
2 hours 23 minutes into the match with No. 18 Lopez, in front of a packed home crowd at Louis Armstrong Stadium, Mardy is, incredibly, serving for the match at 5-4 of the fourth set. Lopez was able to escape, rally, and bring on the inevitable 5th set.
As we entered the third hour of the match, I find myself standing in front of the television – channeling every bit of my energy to his aid. The court conditions were broiling and Mardy hadn’t played this long in quite a while, but I wasn’t giving up and neither was Mardy. More than a handful of steps and he began cramping badly; struggling just to finish. But he was going out on his own terms. And for that – and so much more – Mardy Fish is my hero.
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