WHAT HAPPENED: Fans of all things American tennis saw one of their most beloved performers play his last match on Wednesday afternoon at the US Open, as Mardy Fish’s farewell tour came to a close with a dramatic 2-6, 6-3, 1-6, 7-5, 6-3 second-round loss to fellow 33-year-old Feliciano Lopez of Spain.
Fish fought valiantly in going the distance with the No. 18 seed, but nine sets over three days proved to be too taxing for the veteran, who had only played five matches in 2015 coming into the year-end Slam. Though Lopez would register 22 aces on the afternoon, Fish did an admirable job putting the Spaniard’s serve back in play and neutralizing the points, and he continually pounded his opponent's backhand throughout the match. Lopez would amass 47 errors and six double faults.
A late break in the fourth set momentarily put Fish is the driver’s seat. But serving for the match at 5-4, he was broken at love, as Lopez took advantage of three unforced errors and a double fault. Two games later Lopez had evened the match at two sets apiece.
Fish hadn’t played a five-set match since his last appearance in New York in 2012. And that layoff showed in the final set, as the veteran began to feel the effects of fatigue in the soaring humidity. Serving in the sixth game, he seemed to cramp up and was soon limping around the court. He appeared to call for a trainer during the changeover, trailing 4-3, but none appeared. Effectively playing on one leg, he was subsequently broken at love. With Fish all but immobile, Lopez served out the match with ease.
“I have to say that he was a better player than me overall,” said a gracious Lopez, whose head-to-heads against Fish date back to 2002. “I was lucky I won the fourth set, and then he was cramping in the fifth. I think he deserved the win.”
Fish was the last of a generation of American men who, like it or not, shouldered the weighty (some might say impossible) expectations of replacing the prolific Fab Four of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang. Along with compatriots Andy Roddick, James Blake and Robby Ginepri, all of whom preceded him in retirement, he was expected to further a red-white-and-blue tradition of Grand Slam glory.
The group did its damnedest to fill in. A-Rod, Fish’s roomie in those bygone days at Boca Prep, rose to No. 1 and remains the last American man to win a Grand Slam singles title, the 2003 US Open. Harvard graduate Blake climbed as high as No. 4 and pushed Andre Agassi to five sets in one of the most memorable US Open quarterfinals of all time, in 2004. Ginepri broke through to the US Open semis in 2005. As for Fish, he peaked at a career-high No. 7 in 2011, claimed six ATP titles and won more than 300 matches. He reached the quarters at the Australian Open (’07), U.S. Open (’08) and Wimbledon (’11), and struck silver at the 2004 Athens Games. Each one played a role in helping the U.S. bring the Davis Cup back to American soil for the first time in a dozen years in 2007.
As Patrick McEnroe recently opined of Fish, “If you want to talk about pure tennis skill and ball-striking, you can make a strong case that he’s the best out of that group.”
But despite his serve-and-volley prowess and all that he accomplished on the tennis court, Fish will likely be best remembered for the manner in which, in the public eye, he bravely dealt with an oft-debilitating anxiety disorder, a condition that first reared its ugly head when he began experiencing an irregular heartbeat in early 2012.
He came to New York, in his words, to chase the demons that had haunted him since his last appearance at the US Open three years ago, when repeated anxiety attacks kept him from taking the court against one of tennis’ all-time greats, Roger Federer. He came here, too, to say goodbye to a sport he’d been playing since he was a toddler in his native Minnesota, when a local TV station aired footage of a two-year-old phenom who could hold his own from the baseline.
By simply taking the court against Marco Cecchinato in the first round, a match he won 6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3, he’d already faced down those demons. And on Day 2, despite the outcome, he walked away from the sport on his own terms. With his parents and wife, Stacey, looking on, he went out fighting, giving it his all. And that’s something not every world-class athlete can say.
WHAT IT MEANS: As Lopez moves on (he’ll next face the winner of the Milos Raonic vs. Fernando Verdasco second-rounder), Fish will now embark on the next phase of his life. We’ll likely see him around the courts again sooner rather than later. The California resident has said he is open to playing a mentoring, if not coaching, role in some capacity.
“I'd love to help out,” he said. “I am going to help out this off-season with some of the guys in L.A., some of the Americans. I think I sort of have a unique perspective where I sort of know what the bottom feels like and, not No. 1 in the world, but Top 10 in the world feels like and how you can try to get everything out of yourself. There’s a ton of great young Americans coming up. This is going to be a really good time in the next few years to see them grow. And I'd love to help. I'm going to help and share as much as I can with them.”
QUESTION: Career-wise, where does Lopez rank among his Spanish contemporaries Rafa Nadal, David Ferrer, Tommy Robredo and Fernando Verdasco?