High Holidays Inspiration from the US Open

The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York, home of the US Open, where more than 700,000 tennis fans will watch the top men’s and women’s players from around the world compete for a staggering $42,253,400 in prize money seems a very unlikely place for High Holiday inspiration. Yet, a non-Jewish player with a very Jewish neshama, has a lot to teach us about introspection and spiritual preparation-important lessons as the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe approach. While other players are giving post-match press conferences which focus on the match itself, Mardy Fish is speaking about the difficult road he has traveled these past three years.

Mardy Fish, 33, is an unlikely Elul inspiration though he happens to be married to Stacey Gardner, a Jewish lawyer, model and former host of Deal or No Deal. The two were married in 2008 under a chuppah with close friend, tennis player, James Blake serving as groomsman

Fish is best known for a successful tennis career where he won six tournaments on the main ATP Tour, he reached the finals in the 2004 Olympics, and was in the quarterfinals in the 2007 Australian Open, the 2008 US Open, and the 2011 Wimbledon Championships. In April 2011, Fish overtook fellow American and close friend, Andy Roddick to become the American No. 1 in the ATP rankings. Fish earned more than $7.3 million in prize money as a professional tennis player, and he reached a career high of 7th in the world.

Then, in 2012, everything began to change. Fish began to experience some health problems which impacted his tennis career. At first, Fish reported fatigue as the reason for not playing during the European clay court season. He also withdrew from the 2012 French Open. During the year, he was treated for sever cardiac arrhythmia and had cardiac catheter ablation to correct cardiac arrhythmia. Fish used a heart monitor regularly and experienced sleep difficulties.

Ranked 23rd for the US Open, Fish withdrew in the 4th round before his match with Roger Federer. As Fish and his wife were about to leave the gate to return to Los Angeles, his wife saw how Fish had panicked and his heart was racing. Gardner insisted they got off the plane, and they chartered a private jet five days later. Fish was afraid to leave the house for three months.

Fish continued to experience crippling anxiety and panic attack for thirty minutes each day. He was eventually diagnosed with anxiety disorder and panic attacks.

Fish hasn’t played much tennis since 2012. In 2013, he competed in 9 matches, took up golf, and spent a lot of time with his young son, Beckett. Fish recently decided to return to Queens to play in one last US Open; he will retire when he is no longer in the tournament.

In preparation for his retirement, Fish has played in some recent tournaments. He lost in the first round of a tournament this summer in Atlanta to Israeli Dudi Sela, and lost in the second round in Cincinnati to Andy Murray. He has also had some success in doubles this summer.

But most importantly, Fish has come a long way in these three years and is an inspiration to all who hear his story. Fish has become a spokesperson for anxiety and panic disorder and for mental illness. And Fish is an inspiration to sportswriters.

After US Open matches, players are required to speak to members of the media, if requested. Some players, especially in the early rounds, don’t attract much attention. And questions tend to focus on the match just played, on the upcoming opponent, etc. The Fish post-match conference was attended by 40 or 50 reporters and photographers. The transcript of the Mardy Fish press conference filled four typed pages, with most questions focusing on his anxiety disorder. The transcript could not adequately capture Fish’s calm, thoughtful demeanor.

Fish entered the interview room, freshly showered after his first round US Open match (Monday) on the Grandstand court. He had just defeated 102nd ranked Marco Cecchniato of Italy 6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3. The crowd was clearly behind Fish “We love you Mardy Fish!” “All these years, we’ll appreciate you!”

(H. Blas)

One reporter asked what exactly anxiety disorder is. “Well, anxiety disorder is when your mind takes over and usually goes into the future and sort of predicts what you think is going to happen, and usually it’s bad stuff.”  Another reporter asked about other athletes with anxiety issues. Fish noted that several tennis players — men and women — have approached him confidentially, to speak about anxiety. He noted that he sought out roles models in the sports world with the same issue who had “beaten it” or who had success with it and were able to come back again.” But he wasn’t able to find those people.”

So HE has become that person. “It helps me personally to be open and talk about it.” When asked what he would want his legacy to be as a player and as a role model, he said, “I just hope to help people — it helps me to talk about it. Maybe it helps other people to talk about it.”

Fish’s introspection and honesty struck me as very appropriate and inspiring for the pre-Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur season. During Elul, the month before Rosh HaShanah, we examine how we have behaved during the past year, and we think about how we can improve our behavior in the coming year. We consider atonement, ask forgiveness, reconcile, and to seek closeness with God. Fish has clearly accepted who he is and he has made an action plan to heal — both himself, and the world. He helps others by speaking openly about mental illness, and he has been working with Athlete Ally, an organization which combats homophobia in sports.

As I watched Fish playing on the same courts where his difficulties started three short years ago, I thought of the Rambam, Moses Maimonides, in Hilchot Teshuva, Laws of Repentance. What is complete teshuva? When a person has the opportunity to commit the same sin and he possesses the ability to do it, but he separates and does not do it because of teshuva — and not out of fear or lack of strength. Fish did nothing wrong. He does not need to “do teshuva.” But I think he is taking Rambam’s advice — he is going back to the place where his troubles started, and he is gaining mastery. “I desperately wanted to come back and change that narrative,” Fish told reporters. “I feel really good.”

May we all work to achieve a level of honesty and comfort with ourselves and our lives and to write new narratives. And may we all get home safely (and in time) from the men’s finals on Erev Rosh Hashana.   Shana Tova

(H. Blas)
About the Author
Director-Tikvah program (for campers with special needs) at Camp Ramah in New England; consultant on special needs to National Ramah Commission; social worker; special educator; special needs bar/bat mitzvahs; writer for Jewish and secular publications.