NEW YORK (AP) — This, Mardy Fish said afterward, is what ran through his mind during his first U.S. Open match in three years — and the first match of his last tournament as a tennis pro: "I'm going to be OK. Everything's going to be OK. You're going to be fine."
Helped by medication and therapy, Fish has been dealing with severe anxiety disorder, a condition that led him to abandon his career. He returned to competition briefly this summer for a farewell tour of sorts, and his final visit to Flushing Meadows as a player began Monday with a 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-1, 6-3 victory over 102nd-ranked Marco Cecchinato of Italy.
"A lot of sort of internal talk," is the way Fish described his state of mind Monday. "That comes from you just learning from every experience and episode that I have had, struggle that I have had, and what I have worked so hard to get myself to. Three years ago, that would have been really tough. I have come a long way."
He faces 18th-seeded Feliciano Lopez in the second round.
"I took it as this was my last match until I won," Fish said, "and then the next one will be maybe my last match."
In September 2012, Fish withdrew from the U.S. Open because of a panic attack before he was supposed to face Roger Federer in the fourth round. Fish, once ranked as high as No. 7 and a three-time major quarterfinalist, had not been back to the tournament since.
"I'm glad I got to come back here one more time," the 33-year-old American said in an on-court interview after beating Cecchinato in 2 hours, 52 minutes.
It could have been quicker, but Fish wasted a chance to close out the first set when serving for it at 5-4, 30-love. He lost five of the next six points, each with an unforced error.
"I want to sort of take in everything and enjoy all aspects of this tournament, because it is so great, but sometimes it's hard. I mean, I haven't played for three hours ... very often since ... 2012. I haven't hit tennis balls for three hours in practice at all," Fish said. "You look at the clock and you're a bit worried that, 'Can I last this long?' That just sort of spirals and snowballs into the other issues that I have to deal with."
But he managed to contain the difficult thoughts against Cecchinato, who is 0-7 in tour-level matches.
"I got through it," Fish said. "I knew that I was playing fine. It was just a matter of getting going. Was my body going to hold up? Was I going to hold up? So there is a lot of things that most players out here don't have to deal with that I have to deal with in those circumstances."
Fish turned pro in 2000, won six titles in singles and eight in doubles and a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics. Things began unraveling for him in March 2012, when his heart started racing uncontrollably at night. He returned to action that June, playing until the overwhelming episode at the U.S. Open.
He played 10 matches in 2013, then missed more than 18 months before one match this March.
Fish said he speaks openly about mental illness both because it helps him — and because he hopes to help others.
"There's a ton of guys in the locker room I'm sure that have trouble with it from whatever level it is. I have spoken to some male and female players about it privately," he said. "Maybe they are just not comfortable right here, with cameras on them, talking about it."
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