Former US tennis star Mardy Fish candidly speaks about his anxiety disorder that crippled his rising career, and why talking about mental health matters
In the early minutes of the Netflix film Breaking Point, an old video on “mental toughness”, shown regularly to young tennis players at an academy, surfaces. An instructor clearly outlines the steps to be followed, as if it were a DIY guide: “No whining, no complaining”. Mardy Fish was one of those kids at the academy who had it drilled into him at an early age that in competitive sport, you had to put your head down, and that showing any weakness would be a crime.
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If champions could be manufactured like that at an academy, then American men’s tennis would continue to rule the world. But it hasn’t since the dizzy ‘90s, and Fish’s story is symbolic of what can go wrong when mental health issues in sport are allowed to fester and eventually blow up. Breaking Point, part of the Untold series by Netflix, charts Fish’s rise as America’s next big hope, his peak highs, and steep fall when he was consumed by a severe anxiety disorder, compounded by a serious heart condition.
As much as the hour and 20 minute documentary is about Fish, it is also about his childhood friend and contemporary, Andy Roddick. While America was toasting the success of the Williams sisters, the men’s game had hit a wall, and Fish and Roddick were expected to ram it down and herald a new era.
Their association began at the plush Saddlebrook tennis academy in Tampa Bay, Florida, identified by the US Tennis Association as the nursery to find the next Pete Sampras/Jim Courier/Andre Agassi. In the eyes of many, including Fish, the fiercely-determined Roddick was marked out as a star pupil. Roddick’s parents were convinced they found their sporting match for their son in young Fish, and even took him in to their home for several months.
Priceless home videos by the Roddick family enrich the film. One of the better anecdotes was how ex-Army man Roddick Senior would yank his son and Fish out of bed at 5am for training. The boot camp didn’t stop at Saddlebrook, it seemed. Back on court, the friendly rivals faced off in an epic Cincinnati Masters final in 2003. How Roddick, in the brink of defeat, outsmarted his rival, is another captivating side story.
That Roddick was willing to not only lend his voice to the film, but also lay bare his own vulnerabilities lends more perspective on their personal struggles as players and icons. It is also credit to the show’s creators Chapman Way and Maclain Way (also the makers of Wild Wild Country) that Roddick — the bigger star of the two — doesn’t steal the show. There is empathy and mutual respect for one another throughout.
It took a great deal of courage for Fish to unlearn everything that mental toughness video was teaching, and tell the world about what was churning inside him. He even underwent a cardiac catheter ablation after experiencing heartbeat so fast that it felt like it would burst out of his chest.
However it was the diagnosis of severe anxiety disorder that ultimately crippled his career, almost at the same time Roddick retired prematurely at 30. It was against Roddick’s longtime nemesis Roger Federer that Fish took the biggest decision of his life; to pull out moments before an anticipated US Open clash in 2012.
Fish’s revelations and the timing of this film’s release is pertinent considering Naomi Osaka’s recent travails with mental health and why professional sport needs to give players an environment to speak freely about stress. Singles’ tennis can be a terribly lonely place because you don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off. A recent Netflix release on the perpetually melancholic Osaka goes deeper on her ethnicity and fight for social causes, but it is Fish’s candidness about his mental health that hits harder and stronger, and highlights why sports needs to reevaluate how it looks at its vulnerable stars.
A more sensitized approach to mental toughness could have yielded different results. Perhaps Fish could have bagged a Grand Slam; Roddick could have added more titles to his solitary US Open? We will never know.
Untold: Breaking Point is currently streaming on Netflix