LONDON -- As Thanksgiving approaches, Mardy Fish can be grateful that, nearing his 30th birthday, he qualified for the year-end championships. "Potential" and "Fish" no longer feature in the same sentence, which is a good thing.
But Fish is finding out the hard way that minor lapses against the world's best have fatal consequences. On Sunday, in his tournament debut against an ill Rafael Nadal, Fish, struggling himself with a hamstring injury, began poorly. He commendably rallied, but then up a break in the final set quickly relinquished the lead.
Nadal predictably took advantage, edging Fish in a third-set tiebreaker.
Tuesday afternoon at London's O2 Arena, against the less-steady Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, it was much the same story. Fish lost 7-6 (4), 6-1 and needed Nadal to beat Roger Federer later Tuesday to remain in contention for a spot in the semifinals.
If only Fish was fully fit.
"I wasn't able to practice more than an hour since Paris on the court in a row," Fish said in his news conference. "I go out and play a match two days ago with Rafa, and you can imagine how I felt the next morning."
Fish began the match in the worst possible fashion, broken in the opening game. Yet despite the blow -- Tsonga is the type who can hold serve comfortably on any surface for an entire set -- Fish managed to quickly break back.
Then guess what? Fish was broken to trail 2-1 with a little help from a linesperson, who ruled that Tsonga's short slice backhand down the line was good when it was in fact wide. Fish didn't stop to challenge and eventually lost the point.
One could argue that the U.S. No. 1 was lucky to force the tiebreaker since Tsonga played a shocking game when trying to serve it out at 5-4, but had Fish kept it together in that third game, he might have won the opening set, not Tsonga.
Fish got into trouble in the tiebreaker at 1-2 when he hit a soft approach to Tsonga's weapon, the forehand; with a chance to get back on serve in the 'breaker, at 2-4, he didn't do enough with a forehand pass.
Chance gone, and Fish knew it.
When the set ended, Fish took out his frustration by slamming his racket into his foot and began with the verbal abuse -- to himself.
You knew the second set would go one way. There was no thriller a la the U.S. Open, when Tsonga won in five.
"I certainly feel like I could be 1-1 without a doubt," Fish said. "And today's a winnable match for me."
Fish indeed did plenty of chatting, getting into a protracted conversation with chair umpire Carlos Bernardes deep in the first set, perhaps still mulling the blown call.
"I told him that I loved him, if you go back to the tape," Fish said. "Carlos has been in the chair for a lot of my matches. He's seen good sides and bad sides of me."
What is it with Fish and the umpires this tournament? On Sunday he felt that Mohamed Lahyani was exaggerating when he motioned that a Fish ball was out by a fair distance. An annoyed, sour looking Fish challenged that time, and when Lahyani was proved right, Fish let out a smile.
Fish will probably be smiling in a week or two when he reflects on his 2011, but in the wake of the loss to Tsonga his mood won't be great.