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Olympic Medalist Mardy Fish Seemingly Had It All — Until Anxiety Hit

By Joanne C. Gerstner | July 29, 2020, 4:17 p.m. (ET)

Mardy Fish celebrates after winning his second round match at the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships on June 28, 2012 in London.


Mardy Fish seemingly had it all. One of the top American men’s tennis players of his generation, he had been ranked in the top 10, won an Olympic silver medal, earned millions in prize money and beaten some of the biggest names in the sport. He also had a loving family, having married wife Stacey in 2008.

Yet none of those things mattered without strong mental health.

Fish, now 38 and retired from tennis, has been open about his experience with diagnosed anxiety — and his wish for elevated awareness and treatment for mental health issues.

Mental health came into his life in a big way in 2012. Coming off a strong season, the Edina, Minnesota, native was expected to be a serious factor on that year’s ATP Tour. Instead his season was interrupted when he started experiencing terrifying heart arrhythmias that led into panic and anxiety attacks. 

During an arrhythmia, his heart beat so fast he feared it would explode. The episodes were so serious that Fish feared he was going to die.

Successful cardiac ablation surgery corrected the condition. The non-stop anxiety was another matter.

Fish said he didn’t remember any acute anxiety episodes before his heart problem but admitted getting nervous enough to occasionally throw up before big matches. 

But now, playing tennis was impossible. He was scared, unable to focus to play an hours-long, grueling tennis match, and he couldn’t bring himself out of the loop in his head.

Fish realized he needed help, beginning his lifetime journey by dealing with his anxiety.

“It’s been eight years now for me, and the first two or three, I can say I did not have an incredible grasp on it,” Fish told TeamUSA.org. “I would say it took until like 2017. I did not leave the country for five years, and not because I did not have opportunities to travel or do things; I just didn’t feel comfortable.”

He opened up about his life, on and off the court, in a 2015 Player’s Tribune article that drew a lot of attention. It answered some of the lingering questions the tennis world had about Fish; namely, what happened to him after such a career resurgence.

The 2004 Olympic men’s singles silver medalist said the article brought out a lot of support from famous people in sports and business, but also from the public. People shared their stories, talking about how they deal with anxiety and their mental health. Fish said people still contact him today, and he tries to reach out as much as possible to provide moral support and encouragement.

“I know I am lucky, because I have an amazing support system around me,” Fish said. “My wife, my family, her family, friends, so many all around me. They would help take my mind off it, be there for me. But I know if I had nothing around me, just me by myself, no way would I be here. I would have gotten way too deep into it and never get out of it. I have no idea where I would be. I don’t even want to think about that.”

Tennis is that perfect storm of panic, anxiety, anxiousness, pressure, all rolled into one. It is a tough, tough sport.

Fish began playing tennis as a small child, as his dad was a tennis pro in Minnesota. Soon Fish showed promise, and the family moved to Florida. The tennis mentality, which is instilled starting with promising juniors, is to be a warrior: Never stop. Never give up. Fight for every point. Losing focus, even for a few minutes, could mean a game, set, or match slips away.

Fish has connected how his deep tennis training and mental health were at odds during his toughest times.

“I’ve been taught since I was young to show no weakness; if I am tired, not show you that I am tired,” said Fish, who had a 16-year pro career. “If I’m pissed off, OK, I will show you that. But I am trained to mentally keep everything within.

“Tennis is the ultimate gladiator sport, in a non-contact way. We leave the locker room all by ourselves. We have to beat the other guy across the net with no help. In a way, tennis players are really trained to go for it because nothing is guaranteed, we have to win to make money, to make more money. It is not a team sport where there are guarantees for certain money win or lose.”

He added, “Tennis is that perfect storm of panic, anxiety, anxiousness, pressure, all rolled into one. It is a tough, tough sport.”

Fish remains active in tennis, serving as the U.S. captain for Davis Cup since 2019. He also has encouraged the U.S. Tennis Association to build up its mental health services for elite tennis players at all levels.

Turning to another favorite sport, golf, helped Fish really understand the unique challenge of the tennis mindset. Fish is a skilled golfer, having played on pro mini-tours and won the 2020 American Century Celebrity tournament two weeks ago.

“I played these mini-tour tournaments, and after the round, I came back just exhausted,” he said. “I wasn’t physically exhausted, but mentally. I was trained never to leave my mental game for a moment. Always be engaged. I can’t do that in golf. You have to let your mind go between shots, or you will burn out. That taught me a lot.”

Fish is thrilled to see the shift to a more open discussion of mental health in the United States, giving credit to fellow Olympians such as Michael Phelps and Kevin Love for leading the way. His wish is for his story, his life, possibly helping others to seek help if they are struggling.

“I want to say that we all have stress, and it is relative to everybody’s world,” Fish said. “Whether you are a tennis player, or a mailman, or a firefighter, or a reporter, we all have stresses and everybody’s health is similar in their own bubble. Nobody is immune from having mental health issues. It is not a sign of weakness. And people maybe think it can’t happen because you are famous or playing tennis at Wimbledon. It can. 

“And until it happened to me, I didn’t know anybody who had gone through this. Now, I know so many people who are having issues with mental health. It is real, and the best thing we can to is support each other.”

Joanne C. Gerstner

Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for The New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Mardy Fish