Flustered Fish can't find his form
MELBOURNE, Australia -- No one needs to tell Mardy Fish how important this season is. Having strung together the finest year of his career in 2011, when he became a mainstay in the top 10 and passed Andy Roddick as the U.S. No. 1, he's out to prove it wasn't an anomaly.
Two days ago he spoke of wanting to appear at the World Tour Finals again, win a Masters title and get past the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam. And while the first two might come to fruition in 2012, the latter won't happen in Melbourne after an agitated Fish was bundled out in the second round 7-6 (4), 6-3, 7-6 (6) by Alejandro Falla.
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Fish was floored twice, and his usually potent serve didn't bother the Colombian, whose return of serve is likely the best part of his game. Last year at the Australian Open, even with a thyroid condition, Fish engineered the first two-set comeback of his career; there was no such magic this time.
Yes, some out there will indeed be using the F-word about now -- fluke. That'd be harsh.
Fish can take heart from the fact he won't lose many ranking points -- he fell in the second round in Melbourne last year -- but this isn't the start to the season he wanted.
Further, Fish didn't cover himself in glory with his on-court conduct, again. Indeed, it seems nowadays that whenever Fish loses at a Grand Slam, or anywhere, he's ticked off, and not only with himself. And here we thought those days had passed.
There was that run-in during his defeat to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the U.S. Open -- "I don't speak French, you dumbass" -- and Fish clashed with flashy, so-called "Baby Fed" Grigor Dimitrov at the Hopman Cup in Perth this month. They had to be separated by a referee.
On Wednesday as the heat persisted in Melbourne, Fish was more concerned with Falla receiving multiple rubdowns for a cramp in the third set than trying to pick up his game.
"It's my responsibility to put it behind me," Fish said. "But I'm a human being. I see that guy's called the trainer three, four times, however many times he was out there. It's hot. And I'm down two sets to love."
His arms were outstretched when he missed shots, he berated himself, he pounded his racket into the court and he questioned calls. His postmatch handshake was more of a slap.
There was no confronting Falla, however. Hey, he's a beefier fella than Dimitrov.
"He said something to me, but I wasn't paying attention," Falla, ranked 71st, told reporters. "I felt he was nervous since the beginning because I was playing aggressive, I was solid from the baseline and I beat him a couple of years ago [in Washington in 2008]. I think he knew it was going to be a tough match."
When asked about his behavior ("You seem to be sort of uncharacteristically frustrated a lot in Australia this month; do you think that's to do with fatigue from last year?"), Fish replied: "I don't know what you're talking about."
Likely as a result of the antics, Falla was the crowd favorite on Court 3, receiving loud applause when the match ended.
"There's a difference between whining and just being angry [at yourself]," Martina Navratilova said during commentary for the Tennis Channel. "Mardy's whining right now. Usually his attitude at the Slams has been exemplary."
For all his struggles on court, Fish, who made 58 unforced errors, almost forced a fourth set, and who knows what would have happened next? He couldn't serve out the third but hung on for a tiebreaker, where a stunning Falla backhand lob capped a 30-shot rally and gave him a 5-4 advantage. Fish later succumbed on his third match point.
Falla, who can electrify when his aggressive ground game is working, was probably due a substantial win. The way he fizzled against Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2010 -- when he blew a two-set lead in the first round -- wasn't pretty to watch, and Falla wasted another opportunity last year at the French Open when he couldn't put away Juan Ignacio Chela in the fourth round.
"This year I'm ready to have a good year," Falla said. "Mentally, improving a lot. I want to keep it up for the whole season, and I'm sure my ranking is going to get better."
Fish was hoping that his shorter-than-usual offseason would benefit him. He could carry his good form into a new campaign a la Novak Djokovic in 2011 and hit the ground running. That failed to materialize. Now, don't be surprised if Fish takes a break. Then he should expect to excel in Indian Wells and Miami.
But going deep at the Australian Open was the bigger priority.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.
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