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By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Mardy Fish

Mardy Fish failed to serve out the match at 5-4 in the fourth set, falling to Feliciano Lopez in the final match of his career.

Photo credit: US Open/USTA

NEW YORK—The career clock was ticking and Mardy Fish was aching.

Three hours of play in sweltering heat left a drained Fish, tantalizingly close to victory in the fourth set, reeling with cramps in the decider. Hobbling around behind the baseline in a circle and sometimes leaning on his red Wilson racquet like a cane, Fish looked like a man in desperate need of a time-out to stop the torment on Louis Armstrong Stadium.

In the end, he was boxed in by a resolute Feliciano Lopez and oppressive conditions.

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The 33-year-old Fish's final match, like some stretches of his career, was both inspiring and excruciating. He lost the match, but gained a personal victory closing out his career on his feet and his own terms.

"I wasn't quitting. I was just cramping," Fish said afterward. "Both sides of both legs, if I moved anywhere close to three or four steps, two or three steps, it would go. You would have had to carry me off the court. I was definitely not stopping at that point."

Fish's nerve failed him when he served for the match at 5-4 in the fourth set. His body jilted him in the fifth set, but his spirit stayed strong even as Lopez rallied for a 2-6, 6-3, 1-6, 7-5, 6-3 victory advancing to the US Open third round for the sixth straight year.

"I think I was very lucky. I think he was the better player today," Lopez told the media afterward. "He probably got a little bit tight serving for the match. And then the fifth set he was cramping and so tired because of the heat. It was a difficult match, especially the fifth set, seeing Mardy could not even walk. I was also very tired. I could not even serve. I was double-faulting many times. When those matches get to those moments it's all about feelings and thoughts in your mind and it was really tough to deal with."

Fans flooding into Louis Armstrong Stadium knew they could be witnessing the last call of Fish's career.

The son of a tennis teaching pro, Fish cracked the Top 10 for the first time on April 18, 2011, the same season he reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals and three consecutive finals during the North American summer hard court season.

In the four years since he has battled physical and mental issues. Fish was diagnosed with a heart ailment and underwent cardiac catheter ablation procedure on May 23, 2012. He suffered from anxiety linked to his heart issues, weight loss, bouts of depression. Fish went into a spiral culminating with his withdrawal from a scheduled fourth-round match against Roger Federer at the 2012 U.S. Open.

Prior to his return to New York, Fish conceded "I have a lot of demons from that place."

For nearly four sets today, he put them in their place.

The 2008 US Open quarterfinalist poured passion out on the court playing like a man extending his Flushing Meadows farewell, Fish burst out to a 3-0 third-set lead

A Lopez double fault, floated forehand error and pedestrian drop shot that sat up inviting Fish to swoop in and knock his two-hander down the line, breaking again for 5-1.

The bad news for Lopez? His sweeping lefty serve, the foundation of his game, showed cracks: He served just 35 percent in the set.

The worse news? Lopez, a man who scored hard-court wins over Milos Raonic and Rafael Nadal in Cincinnati last month, managed to win just three points on his first serve as Fish tore through the 30-minute third set.

At 4-all stretching Fish two-handed return crosscourt eluded Lopez for two break points. On the second, Fish battered a backhand approach off the baseline that Lopez could not handle as Fish broke again for 5-4 as the crowd roared in support. "Keep it going Mardy!" a man screamed.

Serving for the third round, a tense Fish lost his first serve and made three straight errors, slapping a backhand approach into net to face triple break point. Gulping deep breaths and squinting into the high sun, Fish spun his third double fault of the day ending a horrid game by gifting Lopez the break for 5-5.

Lopez ran off eight of nine points holding for 6-5 and shifting the pressure right back on Fish's shoulders.

Spiking pressure made the net seem to sprout a bit, Fish could not find his first serve and even his normally rock-solid backhand failed him. Successive backhands into net gave Lopez two set points. Fish flipped a forehand wide of the sideline to toss the set away.

A revitalized Lopez, on the brink of elimination 10 minutes earlier, won 12 of the final 14 points snatching the 50-minute fourth set.

In the fifth game of the final set, Lopez saved two break points, slashing an ace down the middle to save the second. As the match wore on past the three hour mark in muggy heat, a weary Fish began to lose his legs. He was flat-footed when he smacked a slap shot forehand down the line holding for 3-3. 

Lopez saw his opponent reeling, but he was plagued by issues of his own. Slapping his second double fault of the game he gave Fish double break point at 15-40—his second double-break poin of the decider. A pair of first serves erased both. Lopez held for 4-3 and did not permit another game.

A final backhand landed wide. When it was over, a crimson-faced Fish, took off his white baseball cap, gulped down some water, gathered up his emotions and waved to an appreciative crowd, which showered him with an ovation before shuffling off the court for treatment.

Lopez, whose rivalry with Fish goes back 13 years to their first meeting, gave a fitting send-off to a friend and colleague.

"We play many times; he was the better player normally when we play," Lopez told the crowd. "He was a great player. He has [had] a great career. It was very sad what was happening with his illness. It's great to have him back even for a few weeks."

Ultimately, Fish staggered rather than streaked through the finish line. The result was not what he wanted, but competing back at the tournament where his anxiety issues erupted enabled Fish to face his past and depart on his terms.

"It was very sad. It was very sad what happened to him a few years ago when he left the sport all of a sudden," Lopez said. "It was great to see him back. At least he was able to play a few tournaments and he was able to compete again. Obviously, the way everything ended up cramping today was not the best way to finish, but it was great to see him around again....He's my age, we've been together many years, played together many times he was always a great guy. He's a true gentleman on the court."

Parting can be painful.

The game— and time—takes down all players in the end, but Fish came to closure on his terms and hopefully that will provide him peace of mind long after his time in tennis is done.

"I worked as hard as I could. My body is just about done," Fish said. "I gave it everything I had; that was all I had."


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