Friday April 13th, 2012

Mardy Fish

Mardy Fish's slow start in 2012 included a second-round loss to Alejandro Falla in the Australian Open. (EPA)

With the first quarter of the year finished and the tours moving to Europe, it’s time to take stock of the last three months. Early this week, we examined the biggest surprises and best performances of the 2012 season. Today, we look at five disappointments. 

1. Mardy Fish falls: Watching Fish compete this year hasn't been a whole lot of fun. Few expected the 30-year-old to improve on his stellar 2011, when he broke into the top 10 for the first time, won a career-high 43 matches and made deep runs at a handful of big tournaments. But I'm not sure anyone expected this. Fish is 7-6 this season, including losses to No. 71 Alejandro Falla, No. 388 Albano Olivetti, No. 91 Matthew Ebden and No. 136 Michael Russell. In fact, he won only one set total in those four defeats.

Last month at Indian Wells, Fish admitted that his head just isn't right. He said he spent the offseason working with sports psychologists to try to improve the mental side and his ability to compete.

"We spoke to a few people, mental coaches and things like this, and I don't think it worked, bottom line," he said.

If anything, that time spent trying to get clarity has led him to appear even more confused on the court. His game is stuck in third gear and it's clear the decision-making isn't coming easily for him.

Fish wasn't necessarily a world-beater the last two years (though he did upset Rafael Nadal in Cincinnati in 2011), but he climbed the rankings because he won the matches he was supposed to win, beating the players he was supposed to beat. Not so this year. He's frustrated, snippy and cranky, and he's playing like a guy who's hell-bent on proving to everyone that his back-to-back years of at least 40 victories haven't been a fluke. So far, it seems like he's crumbling under the pressure.

2. Russian tumble: There was a time, a rather long time, when Russians dominated the WTA Tour. They may not have dominated the majors, but by sheer number they were everywhere, with several entrenched at or near the top of the rankings. The names have come and gone, but the Russians' success endured.

But that hasn't been the case in 2012. Outside of Maria Sharapova, the top Russian women have had a horrendous start. Vera Zvonareva, who began the year ranked No. 7, hasn't beaten a player in the top 50 all season. Two-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova is 3-8 and hasn't won a completed match over anyone in the top 40; she has fallen out of the top 20. And the always-unpredictable Svetlana Kuznetsova has been sputtering, too, with early-round losses in Melbourne, Indian Wells and Miami.

There's an argument to be made that Zvonareva was overachieving during the last two years (when she reached No. 2) and that she's now coming back to earth, and that Kuznetsova's head will never let her fully tap into her natural talent. So maybe the expectations were set too high for those two players. But Pavlyuchenkova has been puzzling. This isn't a veteran heading toward the twilight of her career. The 20-year-old has stalled badly.

3. ATP behavioral issues: David Nalbandian was fined for throwing water at a tournament official at the Australian Open; Michael Llodra was slapped on the wrist for directing a racial slur at a Chinese fan in Indian Wells; and Janko Tipsarevic had to be restrained from confronting Radek Stepanek after a brouhaha over a handshake gone wrong during the Davis Cup. These are some pretty ugly incidents between player and officials, player and fans, and player and player. For a tour that prides itself on being led by the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic -- all men who have conducted themselves with class and respect -- there's a whole lot of ugliness bubbling beneath the surface in the lower ranks.

4. Maria Sharapova's final futility: It says something about the expectations Sharapova faces that her ability to make the finals of the three biggest tournaments of the year -- the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami -- somehow looks like a failure. Had the world No. 2 posed more of a challenge in those finals, then the losses might not look so bad. But Sharapova hasn't even taken a set in any of them, losing horribly to Victoria Azarenka 6-3, 6-0 in Melbourne, again to Azarenka 6-2, 6-3 in Indian Wells and then to Agnieszka Radwanska 7-5, 6-4 in Miami. Is Sharapova, one of the greatest competitors the sport has seen, simply running up against better competition? Or is there a larger psychological component at play here?

5. Andrea Petkovic out with injury: Injuries have changed the tennis landscape in 2012, much like they do every year. Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters had to compete at the Australian Open on bum ankles (who knows what would have happened if they were healthy), and illness swept through the Middle East tournaments and culminated at Indian Wells, where the stomach flu knocked out several players. But the WTA Tour has lost a lot of its spunk and playfulness this year with the absence of Andrea Petkovic, who has been sidelined with a stress fracture in her back since mid-January. Petkovic was on her way to being a stabilizing force in the top 10 (less prone to the random upset than, say, Sam Stosur, Li Na or Petra Kvitova) and, more important -- and this is completely selfish on my part -- she was always good for a quote. Petkovic is intelligent, well-spoken and honest, and she doesn't take herself or her colleagues too seriously. Tennis needs those personalities to keep things lively.

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