Melbourne, Dec 18: Coming off a banner year in which he finally cracked the upper tier of tennis, Mardy Fish should have been extra confident for the first Grand Slam of 2012.
Instead, the No. 8-ranked Fish looked uncomfortable and increasingly frustrated on Wednesday as he fell 7-6 (4), 6-3, 7-6 (6) to Colombia's Alejandro Falla in the second round of the Australian Open.
The 30-year-old American sprayed his shots all over the court, finishing with 58 unforced errors. He also failed to capitalize on key chances to come back in the third set, dropping serve immediately after breaking Falla to take a 5-3 lead and committing two straight errors to lose the tiebreaker after fending off a match point.
What may have cost him some energy, however, was his inability to control of his emotions.
Early on, Fish spoke impatiently to a ball kid who didn't bring him a towel quickly enough and, during the third set, he repeatedly harangued the chair umpire about the number of times Falla had called for the trainer on changeovers.
Fish even looked irritated in his post-match news conference and suggested that Falla's repeated treatments for cramps could have been "a ploy."
"Didn't seem like he was having too much trouble during the point. So it was a good tactic on his part," he said.
Fish said he'd been unaware that a player could get treatment for cramps during a match, which caused his frustration to mount during the third set.
"It's my responsibility to put it behind me, you know, but I'm a human being," he said. "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, and I'm looking for anything to sort of gain the momentum a little bit."
When asked about getting angry with the chair umpire, he shrugged his shoulders and looked disinterested. "I didn't get angry with the chair umpire," he replied. "Just asked him how many times the guy is allowed to come for cramps."
Falla said after the match that Fish had made a comment to him during a changeover, too.
"He said, 'Are you cramping, or you're not cramping?'" Falla said. "I wasn't really paying any attention."
Fish had been hoping for a better start to the season following a stellar 2011. Entering last season at No. 16, he broke into the top 10 for the first time, reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon and replaced Andy Roddick as the No. 1 American.
But he has seemingly been on edge since arriving in Australia.
Two weeks ago, he exchanged angry words with Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov during a match at the Hopman Cup in Perth and the two had to be separated by a match referee, according to local media reports.
After easily beating Gilles Muller in the first round at Melbourne Park, Fish talked up his big goals for 2012. He told reporters he wanted to go beyond the quarterfinals of a major and take out one of the top four men's players — Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer or Andy Murray — in the process.
On Wednesday, however, he couldn't even get past Falla, a journeyman ranked No. 71.
Falla had been in this position before. The Colombian is probably best known for his first-round match against defending champion Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2010 in which he crumpled after winning the opening two sets.
He handled the pressure well this time, though.
In the first set, Falla closed out the tiebreaker with three straight points after Fish rallied from a 1-4 deficit to level it at 4-all. Then, in the deciding tiebreak, he double-faulted on his first match point — his only double fault of the match — but recovered to put Fish away.
For Fish, there's now time to assess what went wrong. He said his long 2011 season may have just left him mentally drained coming into the new season.
"You know, it was only six weeks ago or so that I was in London (at the ATP World Tour Finals). So there's really no sort of break or mental break," he said. "I want to stay where I am and try to improve and get higher ranked. You know, mentally it's very fatiguing to make all the right decisions around the game."