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Making the turn: Mardy Fish finds new meaning off the court
Six years after saying goodbye to the pro-tour grind, Fish may be more active than ever—on the court, on the course, and helping combat a struggle anyone can encounter.
Published Sep 18, 2021
The tennis year is scheduled to end with the second episode of the reformatted Davis Cup, which will take place in three different host cities (Nov. 25 to Dec. 5). The U.S. squad will play its group stages in Turin, Italy, under the leadership of captain Mardy Fish.
A former Davis Cup player himself, Fish is also a remarkably gifted golfer. He experienced a career-damaging struggle with anxiety and emerged as one of the first and most visible of elite athletes to go public with his story. The 39-year-old remains a spokesman and advocate for mental-health awareness—an issue that leaped into the sporting forefront with Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from Roland Garros.
Bodo: Have you been able to keep up with the players during the pandemic, and how do you rate their enthusiasm for Davis Cup?
Fish: The pandemic has made it tough to watch them live, but we keep in touch by text and phone. I used to be able to jump on the court to have a hit and come off thinking, “I can see why this kid is really good,” or, “I can see why he’s ranked No. 35.”
The older guys (John Isner, Sam Querrey, et al) remember what Davis Cup used to be; the young guys (Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka, Tommy Paul, et al) didn’t really experience it other than the new way. The enthusiasm level for the young guys seems pretty high. I haven’t even met some of the potential team members in person, like Sebastian Korda, but they all grew up watching Davis Cup. We haven’t skipped a generation yet, to where Laver Cup is something
Bodo: Is there a danger that the ATP Cup has stolen the thunder from Davis Cup?
Fish: You can’t replace Davis Cup with something else. Its love and lore won’t be surpassed any time soon. ATP Cup is a great competition (the U.S. did not qualify for it in 2021), but really, any time there is a team competition, guys jump at the opportunity. Especially our young guys, who are genuinely best friends. I thought players of my vintage, like Andy Roddick, James Blake and the Bryan brothers, were close, but these guys may be even closer.
Bodo: There was a great deal of criticism following the first episode of the revamped competition, with a round-robin format at a single site (Madrid). Was it valid, in your eyes?
Fish: Getting more eyeballs and people in the seats would be great. I understand what the promoters (the International Tennis Federation and Kosmos Investment Holdings) are trying to do: create a World Cup of tennis; keep it in Europe; move it around in a few cities— but attendance was a huge problem.
We were in a really strong “group of death” (with Canada and Italy). One of our matches went on until 4 a.m., but there were only like 50 people in the stands. Meanwhile, in the next stadium over, something like 15,000 fans were watching Spain. They sold tickets to individual matches, rather than a day pass so you could watch other teams. That needs to be fixed.
For players, the event was awesome in how it was organized—the food, the transport, hotel, the amount of practice we got. But the guys were bummed that we didn’t get the fans. They wanted something like what they’d seen on TV in the past, 10,000 people going crazy in an arena.
Bodo: Will the plan to have three different cities involved this year help?
Fish: It sounds cool; you go to Turin for the qualifying, Madrid for the finals— but you better be able to put butts into seats. The date is set in stone; it’s during our Thanksgiving holiday. Do we really want to be traveling then? The organizers had a vote on this and I voted against the multi-city plan. If the players are going to compete in an event they love but they don’t even get rankings points, let’s make it as easy as possible for players. But I think we lost that one.
Bodo: Is there pressure on the event, a timeline for success?
Fish: There is no timeline. The change is here. Everyone has to embrace what it is—and what it is not. Not everybody was happy with the old system, although everybody did love the home-and-away format for the ties. If we could somehow address that, bring it into play, it would be great. The promoters have a window when maybe they shouldn’t think so much about making money and just put on a great show for the fans and players.
You think she would just pull out because she didn’t want to talk with the press? I think that’s incredibly naive and shows a lack of understanding of what mental health can do to you. Mardy Fish on Naomi Osaka
Bodo: Is there a “best of all worlds” scenario to you?
Fish: I do enjoy the experience of a 10- or 12-day competition. I just wish it would have felt like one of those home and away ties of the past. So either go back to the old system, but maybe have it every two years, so guys really gear up for it, or figure out a way with a new format to improve the experience and attract fans.
Bodo: Which is more stressful: playing Davis Cup, or sitting in that captain’s chair?
Fish: Some ties I played—I’m thinking Colombia; Switzerland; Austin—I can’t imagine how you could have more stress. It’s much harder than captaincy. As a captain, you don’t have to worry about playing well, or recovering, or injury. As captain, you know the match is in the hands of the player, not you.
I always felt gratified as a player when Jim Courier was captain, and I knew he had been in any possible scenario I might face on the court. It’s amazing to sit with someone like him, and to draw confidence from what he says, or even just nothing. Just knowing he’s a friend and he’s not freaking out—so why should you?
All we want as captain is attitude and effort. It’s nice to have older veterans around, though. Guys like the Bryans were like a well-oiled machine the way they practiced. Young guys can learn a lot from that.
Bodo: You pulled off a great achievement in Bogota, Colombia, 11 years ago, winning two singles rubbers (one of them 8–6 in the fifth) and being part of the winning doubles team—on clay, no less. Where does that rank on your highlight reel?
Fish: It was probably the highlight of my career, even though there were not that many people there. It was Patrick McEnroe’s last tie as captain, and it was a critical relegation tie—if we lost, it would be two years getting back into contention in the World Group.
People don’t understand how difficult it is to play there, period. The altitude is 9,500 feet and they chose pressure-less balls, which I had never played with before. You could hit the ball on the same spot in the strings and have one shot go into the bottom of the net, the next one 20 feet long. Plus their guys (Alejandro Falla and Santiago Giraldo) had grown up there, on clay, and were playing some of the best tennis of their careers.
After the last singles match on Sunday I could barely walk. When we got off the plane at home in Atlanta after all that it was like, “Okay, we’re home, and nobody even knows what’s been going on.” I had blisters everywhere, scabs on my hands and elbows from falling and sliding. . . but it was such a satisfying experience: Patrick went out on top, and we were back in the World Group.
Bodo: Golfing icon Jack Nicklaus has been quoted as saying, about you, that he’s never played with anyone better who wasn’t on the PGA Tour. You won the celebrity division of the 2021 Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions. How did you come by such mastery in both sports?
Fish: I grew up playing both sports, kind of a country club Bo Jackson (laughs). I grew up playing eye-hand sports because my dad loves tennis and has an affection for golf. I’ve barely taken a lesson, but somehow I just know what the ball is doing or needs to do.
Outside of a few tournaments, I probably play five times a year. I don’t even know where my clubs are a lot of the time. I think it helps me because I don’t have swing thoughts in my head. It’s like learning a language at a young age; it just comes easily for me, and I can’t explain why.
Bodo: Your struggles with anxiety late in your career are well documented and led you into advocacy for mental health. But tennis and golf are two of the most intensely “mental” sports of all. Are you a glutton for punishment?
Fish: (Laughs) The culmination of my problems was at the 2012 US Open, when I pulled out of my fourth-round match with Roger Federer. Until then, the court had been my safe space. I ended up taking a long break, and by 2014, I knew I had come a long way health-wise. I turned to golf because I really missed competition, and winning. Golf became my safe space. (After the 2012 US Open, Fish played only 15 matches for the rest of his career, the last of which in 2015.)
I played some mini-tour events—the equivalent of a Futures—and got wild cards into what you would compare in tennis to Challengers. I never really tried to be a PGA player, but I wanted to get better and satisfy the competitive juices that were flowing like crazy. I owe a ton of gratitude to golf.
Bodo: You were swift to offer support to Naomi Osaka when she withdrew from the French Open. Do you see parallels in your histories?
Fish: I’d say there would be similarities, but everyone’s situation is different. Her stresses and anxiousness are unique to her. I think it shows character to be able to stand up and say, “This is something that is affecting me.” It’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to show you are human. It’s okay not to feel okay.
You think she would just pull out because she didn’t want to talk with the press? I think that’s incredibly naive and shows a lack of understanding of what mental health can do to you. It doesn’t care what your last name is, or what you do for a living. No one is exempt from pressure and stress. She is a total star and a sweetheart. She has already shed a light on mental health, and the more open she is to talking about it, the more she will bring light to something that is incredibly important.
Bodo: How are you feeling now?
Fish: It will never be fully behind me; I will always have that part of my life, and a greater sense of appreciation for mental health. I knew nothing about it beforehand, which is one reason I became vocal about it. I still get calls from people on a monthly basis— people you’ve heard of and people you haven’t; college players, pros. It makes me feel like I am helping. My anxieties were from my job, but it doesn’t matter what job it is—a teacher, a doctor, a pro athlete—if you get too far down the road, it will catch up with you.
Bodo: You were a headline writer’s dream. Do have a favorite one?
Fish: I guess “Fish Catches Federer” was a great one (Fish topped Federer in the Indian Wells semis in 2008) because every other time in our nine meetings, it was “Federer Catching Fish.”