Mardy Fish faced down heart problems and crippling anxiety attacks but in the end it was a humble spot of cramping which brought his career to an end on Wednesday.
The 33-year-old American, who has played just a handful of tournaments in the last three years and seen his ranking slip to 581 as he battled his personal demons, had already said that this US Open, his 13th, would be his last event.
Despite serving for the match at 5-4 in the fourth set of his second round clash against Spain’s Feliciano Lopez, he was finally undone by the same cramping which has claimed many players at this year’s hot and humid US Open.
Lopez saved two break points in the seventh game in the decider when Fish started cramping. He was subsequently broken and Lopez comfortably served out for the victory, despite a fan’s desperate shout of ‘You’ve got this Mardy.’
“I wasn’t quitting. I was just cramping. I mean, both sides of both legs, if I moved anywhere close to three or four steps, two or three steps, it would go,” said Fish after the 3hr 11min Louis Armstrong Stadium encounter, which he lost 2-6, 6-3, 1-6, 7-5, 6-3.
“You would have had to carry me off the court. I was definitely not stopping at that point.”
Fish once reached No7 in the world, won six career titles and made the quarter-finals three times at the majors, including the 2008 US Open. But in 2012, his world imploded.
In May that year, he underwent a procedure to correct a heartbeat irregularity. Then, at the US Open, where he was the 23rd seed, he was set to face Roger Federer in the fourth round but stunned the tournament by withdrawing for “health reasons.”
It was then that Fish realised he was dealing with a problem which affects millions of people around the world. He suffered another anxiety attack sitting on the plane which was to carry him home to Los Angeles as it taxied on the runway. Fish had to disembark and pay $20,000 to hire a private jet to take him out of New York.
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. The condition decimated Fish’s career.
This year’s US Open was his first since that 2012 pullout. He played just five events in 2013, none at all in 2014 and this year featured in only three tournaments, all in the United States. He hopes his legacy will be one of lifting the stigma – especially for men – which surrounds the problem of anxiety and show that it is a genuine medical condition.
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“I was open and honest about a topic that is supposed not supposed to be masculine,” he said. “We are trained as tennis players from a very young age to not show weakness. I was very good at that throughout my career.
“I want to help people that have gone through it and try to be a role model for people that are deep into some bad times, that they can get out of it, because I was there. They can conquer it.”
Lopez, a fellow 33-year-old who first played Fish back in 2002, was generous in his praise of the American.
“He was the better player and deserved to win this match. I was very lucky,” said Lopez. “It’s very sad what has happened to him with his illness in recent years. We played many times and he was often the better player.”
One of the first to congratulate Fish on his career was compatriot and former US Open champion Andy Roddick. He tweeted: “@ MardyFish hell of an effort my friend… I couldn’t be prouder.”
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Serena Williams struggled but moved nearer to the first calendar Grand Slam since 1988 by defeating Dutch qualifier Kiki Bertens 7-6 (7/5), 6-3 at the US Open.
World No 1 Williams, a threetime defending champion seeking her seventh US Open title overall, was outplayed early by her 110th ranked rival at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Wednesday.
But Williams overcame 34 unforced errors and 10 double faults to win and sustain her march toward history.
“I just kept fighting for each point, not for a lot but just one at a time,” Williams said. “I had been pretty relaxed. Today I was a little tight. I think it showed. Hopefully I can get back to where I was before.”
The 33-year-old American is trying to complete the first calendar Grand Slam since Steffi Graf in 1988 and equal Graf’s Open Era record of 22 major singles titles, two shy of Australian Margaret Court’s alltime record.
Williams completed her second “Serena Slam” of four major wins in a row by winning the Wimbledon crown in July and the 33-year-old American can claim her Open Era-record seventh US Open title as well as extend her mark as the oldest woman Slam champion.
Bertens nearly derailed all those dreams, with more than a little help from Williams. After breaking Serena with a running forehand winner for a 2-1 lead, Bertens attacked and made tough shots while Williams sprayed unforced errors and was inconsistent with her serves.
Bertens served for the first set at 5-4 but struggled with the pressure of the moment and Williams broke back to level, only to double faultfour times in the 11th game, which lasted more than eight minutes, before holding.
“I can’t find it,” Williams yelled toward coach Patrick Mouratoglou sitting in the stands as she searched for top serving form ahead of the tie-breaker.
Bertens rolled to a 4-0 lead in the tie-breaker but again faltered with the set within reach, surrendering the next five points, four on errant forehands, before Williams netted a backhand return to level the decider at 5-5.
Bertens netted a backhand to give Williams a set point and the US star had a net-cord ball drop on the sideline. Bertens swatted a desperate forehand long and Williams had taken the set, reacting by bending forward and screaming with fists clenched and her body shaking.
“It definitely doesn’t worry me, being down a lot,” Williams said. “I know I can make a comeback, make a run for it.”
After an early exchange of breaks in the second set, Bertens double faulted away a break to give Williams a 3-2 edge and she broke again in the last game to finish matters after 92 minutes.
Next up for Williams will be American Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who beat compatriot CoCo Vandeweghe 6-2, 6-1.
“I’ll have to play a little better if I want to win,” Williams said.
Also, Australian Open semi-finalist Madison Keys ripped 100th-ranked Czech Tereza Smitkova 6-1, 6-2. Russian 31st seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova lost 7-5, 6-4 to Estonian qualifier Anett Kontaveit.
Meanwhile, defending champion Marin Cilic and seventh seed David Ferrer moved closer to a fourth-round meeting. Croatian ninth seed Cilic, trying to become the first repeat men’s champion since Roger Federer ran off five in a row from 2004-2008, fired 19 aces and advanced to the third round by defeating 139th-ranked Russian qualifier Evgeny Donskoy 6-2, 6-3, 7-5 at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Spain’s Ferrer, the 2013 French Open runner-up who missed the past 2 1/2 months with an elbow injury, downed 102nd-ranked Serb Filip Krajinovic 7-5, 7-5, 7-6 (7/4).
“I’m very happy I’m in the third round,” said Ferrer. “It’s a nice comeback playing on these courts. It’s not easy. Conditions are very difficult with this humidity.”
Three-time defending champion Serena Williams, chasing tennis milestones set by Steffi Graf, credited the retired German star with inspiring her mental discipline ahead of her US Open second round against Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens.
The top-seeded Williams needed only 30 minutes to advance 6-0, 2-0 over 86th-ranked Vitalia Diatchenko at Arthur Ashe Stadium – taking her 22nd consecutive US Open triumph since losing the 2011 final to Australian Samantha Stosur – when the Russian retired with a left foot injury.
Williams is trying to complete the first calendar year Grand Slam since Graf did it in 1988 and match Graf’s Open Era record of 22 grand slam singles crowns, two shy of Aussie Margaret Court’s all-time record.
“It’s great to be here in Arthur Ashe Stadium, to be American, just to be on this journey in my life,” Williams said of her pursuit of history.
“It’s kind of awesome that this is the last grand slam of the year, because if it were in a different country I think I would still love it, but it’s not the same as being an American playing in New York, playing for that ultimate goal.”
Williams credits her ability to focus and dig deep to find consistency in her game, “old school” traits she admits came from watching the grit and toughness of stars Graf and Monica Seles as a child.
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“I think maybe it just comes from just growing up watching so much tennis, enjoying Steffi and Monica, that era where it was just them,” Williams said.
“They were such mental players – just looking at that and being so influenced by that, thinking one day I’m going to be there.”
Williams dislikes one potentially distracting idea, that of television interviews during matches such as one Coco Vandeweghe did.
“Hopefully they don’t make that mandatory,” Williams said.
“I think it’s great for some viewers. Get in the mind of the athletes. But I also think, for me, I’m really focused the whole time. I’m really trying to think about what I want to do. I don’t necessarily want to answer questions about anything.”