For Mardy Fish, it was supposed to mark a high point in his tennis career. Instead, Sept. 3, 2012, stands out as one of the most difficult days of his life.
"I was in the spot where you work your butt off to get to: the fourth round of the U.S. Open against Roger Federer on Labor Day," Fish recalled. "That's why you work so hard in this game and sacrifice so much — to get to that position."
He never stepped on court that afternoon. During the car ride from his hotel in Manhattan to the tournament site in Queens, Fish began to panic. He withdrew from the tournament.
"That was as deep and as low as I got during my whole severe anxiety disorder that I've had now for the past three years," Fish said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I was in a really dark place."
Fish, a former top-10 player, plans to bring things full circle, in a way, by playing in the U.S. Open, which begins Monday. It is the first time he's been to Flushing Meadows since 2012, and the 33-year-old American says it will be the last time he participates in a professional tennis tournament.
"I didn't quite understand what was going on at the time, and when I saw him the next day, it was quite strange to know that he really didn't know what was happening, either," Federer said last week. "But I'm very happy that he was able to figure it out and get it under control and come back and play. The fact that he's able to talk about it openly now is really wonderful."
Fish recently returned to the circuit for a brief "farewell tour" of sorts, playing seven singles and doubles matches at Atlanta, Washington and Cincinnati.
Before that, Fish played one match in nearly two years. He entered the main draw of this year's U.S. Open based on a "protected" ranking, which allows players into tournaments if they missed time through injury or illness.
With help from medication and therapy, Fish has managed, he said, to "get my life back."
"It's still a daily battle," Fish said. "But with a lot of learning from every situation and gaining more and more confidence about some of the things that really bugged me — sleeping, traveling alone, late nights, high exercise, things like that — the more often you do it ... the better you feel."
He came back to his sport now for closure, to be sure, but also to serve as a role model for others dealing with mental illness.
"If anyone reads about my story, and says, 'Look, there's a guy that struggled with a lot of stuff that I am dealing with now, and he got through it,' then, yeah, I'd love that," Fish said. "If it helps one person, then that's great."
Fish, born in Minnesota and now living in California with his wife and 1-year-old son, turned pro in 2000. He won six titles in singles and eight in doubles, and played for the U.S. Davis Cup team. Fish reached the quarterfinals at three Grand Slam tournaments, most recently Wimbledon in 2011, the year he reached a career-best ranking of No. 7.
Federer called him "one of the great ball-strikers of the last 15 years."
Things began unraveling for Fish in March 2012, when his heart started racing uncontrollably at night. He returned to action that June, playing until the overwhelming episode in New York.
Fish played 10 matches in 2013, then missed more than 18 months before one match this March.
"It'll be a shame to see him go from the locker rooms," two-time major champion Andy Murray said, expressing a popular sentiment.
— Said Federer: "I would always seek him out in the locker room when I needed a laugh."
— Said Sam Querrey, an American pro and frequent training partner of Fish's: "He always made those long practice days ... bearable, always kind of brought a smile to your face. Maybe it was a sarcastic comment. Maybe he was kind of making fun of me or someone else. You couldn't help but laugh."
— Said John Isner, the top-ranked U.S. man: "Selfishly, you want to have him around, because he's a good guy. But he'll have a great send-off in New York, and he should enjoy retirement."
Indeed, saying he's at peace "more than ever" with the decision to retire, Fish is ready to confront what he calls the "demons" he encountered at the U.S. Open three years ago.
"It's where it all came crashing down for me. It's where it was all taken away," Fish said. "So there will be a lot of emotions."
Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich