STUART FRASER

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TALKING BALLS 001 Ė MONDAY 31ST AUGUST 2009
By Stuart Fraser

Let the fun commence in NY

There are still just less than three months to go before the end of the 2009 tennis season but already we have reached the last slam of the year with the US Open getting underway today at Flushing Meadows.

It promises to be a fascinating fortnight as always in New York with this clearly being the most energetic slam of the four, although the Australian Open is fast catching up in terms of entertainment and atmosphere.

The spotlight is on the Mens draw with Roger Federer coming in as clear favourite after his impressive victory in Cincinnati where he only dropped one set the entire week.  Add to that the two slams he has already picked up this year and the fact he is regarded by many as the greatest player of all time means that not many can see past the Swiss lifting his sixteenth slam in New York.

The draw appears to have been fairly kind to Federer.  His first round match is against Devin Britton, an American wildcard currently ranked 1370 in the world.  The likely path onwards to the final reads as Giovanni Lapentti/Simon Greul, Lleyton Hewitt, Tommy Robredo, Nikolay Davydenko and Novak Djokovic.  It could be an intriguing match against Hewitt in the third round but after seeing Federer comfortably defeat the Australian in straights last week, it shouldnít be a problem for the World No.1 and I fully expect to sit down on my armchair on the night of Sunday 13th September to watch Federer contest his 21st grand slam final.

Now to the contenders and you really canít look past it being anyone other than the big four starting with the new World No.2 Andy Murray.  The Scot sits at the bottom of a grand slam draw for the first time and given that he is the No.1 player on hard courts this year, he is understandably expected to fulfil his side of the bargain and give us a rematch of last yearís final in New York.

A tough draw awaits for the 22-year-old however and despite his new found status in the world rankings, possibly the toughest Draw of the big four.  Murray opens up his campaign against Ernest Gulbis and although the Latvian was talked about last year as one for the future, he has failed to fulfil his promise on court in 2009.  He has failed to win more than one singles match in any tournament this year and is dangerously close to dropping out of the top 100.  As was the case at Wimbledon, I expect another comfortable straight sets victory for Murray.

However some danger lies ahead after his second round match against Paul Capdeville or Victor Crivoi.  Big serving Croat Ivo Karlovic, Marin Cilic, Juan Martin Del Potro and Rafael Nadal all lie in Murrayís likely path to the final.  As the Scot says though, you have got to beat the top players anyway to win a slam and despite a few tricky encounters along the way, I can see him being the man to take on Federer in the final.

The most interesting first round match is Nadal against Richard Gasquet.  The Frenchman has only recently returned to the tour after the cocaine controversy and to be honest, Iím not really sure what sort of shape he is in although his defeat to Dusan Vemic (current World No.465) in qualifying for New Haven last week did give me an inclination that it will take some time for him to return to the days where he was a regular in the top ten.

There isnít too much expectation upon the shoulders of Nadal given that doubts remain over his fitness and considering that this has never been the strongest of the slams for him.  However, this is a man who just two months ago was World No.1 and the Spaniard can never be discounted.

Interestingly Sky Bet have Del Potro ahead of Novak Djokovic in the betting stakes and although the Argentine is one dangerous hard-hitting opponent, Djokovic looked impressive to me in Cincinnati, particularly in his win over Nadal in the semis.  Itís not an easy opener for the Serb who takes on the experienced Ivan Ljubicic but all in all, itís hard to look past the big four making up the semi final line-up in New York this year.

Although the focus seems to be on the Mens draw, I must also mention the female side of things in New York too.  The return of Kim Clijsters will add some spice to the draw although I think itís just too soon to expect the former World No.1 to win the title.  The bookies favourites are, not surprisingly, the Williams sisters who are on course to meet in the semi-finals.  I can see whoever wins that out of Serena and Venus going on to lift yet another grand slam title although Svetlana Kuznetsova in the other half of the draw at 20/1 with Sky Bet is worth a cheeky couple of quid.

Final slam for a couple of legends

Both Marat Safin and Fabrice Santoro will be making their final slam appearances at Flushing Meadows (barring a change of minds) and both will be sadly missed from the game.  The Frenchman for his magical style and the Russian for his entertainment. Fans favourites to say the least.

Santoro is 36 but itís still unbelievable to consider that he made his first slam appearance at Roland Garros in 1989.  Fast forward 20 years and ĎThe Magicianí has lifted the Davis Cup, beaten a number of the greats in the game and maintained a level of consistency that is truly astonishing for a man of his age.  How fitting that his opening match in the US Open comes against former World No.1 Juan Carlos Ferrero.  Their first round encounter in this yearís Australian Open was a great match under the floodlights on an outside court in Melbourne in front of a very enthusiastic crowd and Iím sure that their match at Flushing Meadows will receive the same level of support.

Safin returns to the scene where he lifted his first slam in 2000 after a stunning straight sets defeat of Pete Sampras in the final.  The Russian has only won one more slam since then in Australia in 2005 and although he has perhaps not made full use of his talent, there can be no disagreeing that Safin has always entertained through his outbursts, smashed rackets coupled with his ability to produce some stunning shots on court.  His plan is to retire at the end of the season however there are murmurs that we may not see any more of him after Flushing Meadows.  I canít say I wouldnít be surprised as itís been a frustrating year for him after failing to close out several winnable matches but letís hope not as a few more months of seeing him in action is better than nothing.

Davis Cup in the thoughts

John Lloyd will again be working in the commentary booth at the US Open this year but the Davis Cup is sure to be occupying the British captainís thoughts as we creep ever closer to the Euro Africa Zone 1 play off against Poland in Liverpool on Friday 18th September.

Of course, if Andy Murray is fit and up for it, he is the first name on the team sheet.  Doubles specialist Ross Hutchins is likely to be the second name on the list but the next two places arenít so certain.  This wasnít helped at all by the fact that all four men in the US Open qualifying draw went out at the first stage.  Had someone even won a couple of matches in qualifying but still failed to qualify for the main draw, he would be the front-runner for the second singles spot behind Murray but it wasnít to be.

Lloyd is now faced with a tough choice.  James Ward is currently the second best player in Great Britain at No.203 in the world rankings but has got there due to his form on the clay courts rather than on the hard stuff which the tie will be played on.  Alex Bogdanovic has played in these matches before but has never won a live rubber before out of his six attempts.  Any possible thoughts Lloyd had of putting Boggo in the team were surely evaporated when he lost his first round match in US Open qualifying against Alexander Peya after having a match point.

Josh Goodall played in the tie against Ukraine in Brahead earlier this year but disappointingly lost in three tie-break sets to Ilya Marchenko.  His form recently has been poor and having retired from his last two matches, there must be doubts over his fitness.

The school of thought seems to be that itís time for 19-year-old Dan Evans to be given a chance and some experience which could bode him well for the future.  Again, his form recently hasnít been all that impressive apart from a semi-final run in the Lexington challenger last month but perhaps it is time for Evans to be given a chance to prove his potential for the future and considering that Polandís highest ranked player is Lukasz Kubot at World No.124, then this is maybe the time to do it.

An outsider is Colin Fleming who has already played in a live rubber alongside Hutchins in the doubles against Ukraine.  The Scot is playing singles at the Cumberland futures this week and a good run there along with his impressive doubles results with Ken Skupski this year could see him included in the team to give Lloyd extra options for the tie.

My team by the way.  Murray, Evans, Hutchins and Fleming. 

One for the future

Itís a shame we donít have a male equivalent of 15-year-old Laura Robson as if we did, that equivalent would be straight in my Davis Cup team.  What a stunning few days though for Robson who sadly fell just short of qualifying for the main draw in New York.

Itís easy to be disappointed that she didnít go on to win her final qualifying match having set herself up score wise to do just that at several points in the final set against Eva Hrdinova.  However, letís remember that she is only 15 and there are clear signs of progress which will continue.  Itís actually frightening to think of what she could be like this time next year, never mind in ten years time when she reaches her mid-twenties.

Letís not get too carried away though.  At the end of the day, she is only in her mid-teens and could probably do without the level of expectation that will have no doubt been put on her shoulders already and will no doubt be multiplied ten-fold come Wimbledon 2010.

A career change for Ancic?

I was surprised to read an online article this week saying that Mario Ancic has quit tennis and is now working in a law office in his home country of Croatia.  Having graduated from the law faculty after five years of study, Ancic has apparently started working as an intern in Zagreb.

Although Iím not sure whether to believe these sort of stories until I hear official confirmation, itís a shame if this is the case.  Ancic has struggled throughout his career due to injury and illness, having been diagnosed with mononucleosis in 2007.

This is a player though who has been in the top ten in the past and reached the semi finals of Wimbledon back in 2004.  He is only 25 and is still ranked within the top 100 at No.82.  Perhaps though heís decided to call it a day and if this is indeed true then all the best to him.