Thursday March 15th, 2012

Mardy Fish lost in the third round of Indian Wells and is just 4-4 on the 2012 season. (Marwan Naamani/Getty Images)

Last week's Toss was one of the most lopsided reader polls in the series' history.'s Bryan Armen Graham joined to debate if the Big Three would continue their stranglehold on Indian Wells, and over 92 percent of readers voted that either Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer would win the tournament.

This week takes a look at a player who broke through in 2011 but has struggled this season including taking an early exit from Indian Wells.

Today's Toss: Can Mardy Fish turn his season around to remain the top-ranked American?

Courtney Nguyen: Mardy Fish hasn't beaten anyone inside the top 20 since he scored a win over Rafael Nadal in Cincinnati last year and he came into Indian Wells without back-to-back Tour wins in 2012. He left the tournament just the same. Fish suffered a third-round exit to 24-year-old Matthew Ebden of Australia, a 6-3, 6-4 loss to the 94th ranked player in the world. Add that to a pile of losses this year to players outside of the top 30 that include Mikhail Youzhny, Alejandro Falla, and No. 388 Albano Olivetti. If you watch Fish these days you can see the frustration. He's muttering to himself incessantly and his body language is more slumped than swagger.

"I'd like to get back to competing better," Fish said after his loss to Ebden. "Competing at a higher level, competing at a position where I am, and not giving these guys some of their best wins of their career just off me."

Fish is clearly slumping and the question is whether he can turn things around. I'm not so confident that he'll be the top-ranked American for much longer let alone in the top 20. Isner is already outpacing him this year. Through March, Fish has accumulated 130 rankings points while Isner is already at 450 thanks to his quarterfinal run in Indian Wells (he could add to that if he gets further). Isner, ranked No. 11, is on the cusp of cracking the top 10 and doesn't have a single quarterfinal to defend until Newport in July. Fish on the other hand has semifinal points in Miami and big set of quarterfinal points to defend at Wimbledon. They came into Indian Wells separated by a mere 755 points and Isner will continue to close that gap.

C.W. Sesno: True, there’s zero question Fish is off to a disappointing start this year. He still hasn’t strung together two consecutive wins this season and is probably kicking himself for playing Dubai instead of Memphis. You can see the frustration mounting as he continues to drop inexplicable matches. And even though I do think Isner will be the top American eventually, I’m not ready to write Fish off just yet.

Let’s not forget his heroic effort in Davis Cup this year, where he knocked off Stan Wawrinka in a thrilling, five-set opening singles rubber and then teamed with Mike Bryan in doubles to clinch the tie over Switzerland. It’s unfortunate he was unable to carry that momentum into Marseille, where he lost to No. 388-ranked (gulp) Olivetti, but I still think one good run will snap his funk.

That’s why I think Miami will be a make or break tournament. As you say, Fish made a run to the semis last year after knocking off Juan Martin del Potro and David Ferrer, so he has a lot of rankings points to defend there. The few points he picked up in Indian Wells (since he lost to Milos Raonic in the first round last year) won’t be enough to keep Isner off his tail for long. But there’s opportunity in Madrid (first-round loss in 2011) and Rome (third-round loss). For the immediate future, I’m less worried about the points and more the confidence. He’s shown he can still move well, it’s his decision-making that’s been questionable. He needs the confidence to get up to the net and put points away, rather than counterpunching his way out of points.

Keep an eye on Fish in Miami, if he can make a decent run and add a few notches to his belt, he’ll start going for his shots more and get back to form. Oh, and after Miami is Davis Cup again. The French team will be dangerous, but a deep run in Miami and another strong performance for the Stars and Stripes could get Mardy’s head right and turn his season around.

Isner is certainly closing fast, but his movement is still a concern and he needs to pick up his return game. And the clay swing is coming up. Courtney, do you have faith that Isner will put up a better showing on the clay swing this year to keep closing the gap?

[polldaddy poll=6043662]

Nguyen: If a five-set Davis Cup win over Roger Federer on clay isn't enough to convince you of Isner's potential on the red dirt, then I give you his five-set tussle with Rafael Nadal at last year's French Open. Isner lost that match 6-4 in the fifth, but it was proof, most importantly to himself, that he could compete on clay. That belief is what helped him knock off Federer at Davis Cup in February and it's why I'm excited to see what he can do during the clay swing. He has very little to defend there, failing to make it past the second round of any European clay tournament last year, and posting a 2-5 record. Fish on the other hand went 5-2 during that span, which isn't great but it's still enough to turn the clay swing into the battleground for the American No. 1 spot.

I absolutely agree that Miami could be Fish's Waterloo. A good run there could right his head and put him back on track. You're right, Chris -- this is more an issue of confidence than an inherent flaw in his game right now. But even if he does things right in Miami, Isner is still hot on his tail and has a great opportunity to use the clay swing to move up the ranks. Fish still isn't confident on that surface.

Isner's strong 2012 start and his potential on clay, combined with Fish's slump and load of points to defend over the summer (Wimbledon quarter-finalist, Atlanta champion, Los Angeles finalist, Montreal finalist, and Cincinatti semifinalist) makes it a no-brainer for me. If Isner isn't the new American No. 1 after Roland Garros I'll eat 10 cans of Bumblebee tuna in salute of the good Mr. Fish.

Sesno: But Courtney, Isner’s Davis Cup win over Federer is due in large part to Fish. If the U.S. doesn’t grab that opening rubber, Isner can’t take such an aggressive approach, going for the lines and blasting huge forehands to keep Federer from getting into a rhythm. I don’t mean to downplay Isner’s result, he said himself that it’s the biggest win of his career. But the clay in Basel was lumpy, which played to the big hitter’s advantage as players on both sides were complaining about balls taking irregular bounces. I’ll contend that Isner’s loss to Nadal at Roland Garros last year was as much about the Spaniard as the American, as Nadal had just come off consecutive finals losses to Novak Djokovic (Madrid and Rome were his third and fourth losses of the season to Djokovic) and he needed to get his head right.

There’s certainly no question that Isner has the opportunity to gain ground in the rankings through the clay swing, but it’s not as if he has no points to defend himself. It’s just that most of those points come after Wimbledon. He’ll need to come up big in the U.S. Open again and played well in the smaller tournaments (won 250s at Winston-Salem, Newport, reached semis of Washington and final in Atlanta). I’d love nothing more than to see both these guys put up solid years and have two Americans in the World Tour Finals for the first time since Andy Roddick and James Blake qualified in 2006. With Roddick now outside of the top 30 for the first time since 2001, Fish and Isner will compete to be the top-ranked American. For Fish, it’ll all come down to Miami and whether he can ditch the funk there. For Isner, I need to see more consistency on clay. We shall see soon enough.

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