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By Stuart Fraser

Davis Cup disaster

To say the result was disappointing would be an understatement.  To be relegated to Group Two in the Euro/Africa zone of the Davis Cup is a disaster, especially when we are one of the richest tennis nations in the world.

We may have the World No.3 on our books but on his own, he can only win a maximum of two rubbers which is exactly what he did.  He risked further aggravation to his injured left wrist by playing with Ross Hutchins in an effort to win us the crucial doubles rubber but alas, it wasn’t to be.  The Polish pairing of Marius Fyrstenberg and Marcin Matkowski are an established team ranked 11 in the world and it was always going to be a tough ask for any possible British pair to beat them.

The truth is without Murray, we don’t have the top players needed to establish ourselves in Group One, never mind the World Group.  A stint in Group Two gives us the chance to give our younger players crucial Davis Cup experience in highly winnable ties where the expectation levels are not so high.

There have been calls from some for captain John Lloyd to go but at the end of the day, he is in a similar position to the Scottish national football team’s manager George Burley in that he can only work with what he has got.  Lloyd isn’t to blame for the lack of top class players that we have here in Britain.

If there is one thing he got wrong though over the weekend, it was the choice of Evans for the decisive 5th rubber in my opinion.  Yes, I was one of the many who, before the tie, thought Dan Evans should have been given a shot in the Davis Cup but after watching his performance against Jerzy Janowicz on Friday, his serving was poor and nerves seemed to play a big part in his performance hence why I would have picked Colin Fleming to play against Michal Przysiezny in the final match.

Just to quickly digress, I thought BBC commentator Andrew Castle’s ignorance when Greg Rusedski stated the possible option of Fleming playing the fifth rubber was disgraceful.  Castle seemed totally unaware of the fact that Fleming played singles as well as doubles, never mind the fact that he had won a futures title just a few weeks earlier.  Give me the knowledgeable Sky Sports tennis team any day who clearly keep an eye on tennis all year round!

Anyway, back to my original point.  Fleming has previous Davis Cup experience from the match against Ukraine in March where he played in the doubles and I feel his aggressive game style would have matched up better against the then World No.678 than Evans.  In just over a year since his return to the tour, the Scot has already surpassed his previous career high singles ranking of 365 and has achieved numerous titles plus some stunning victories with doubles partner Ken Skupski.  The whole tie came down to that last decisive rubber and although Evans is one for the future, I think Fleming had a better chance of winning that particular match.

As I have said previously, if there is anything positive to be taken from this tie, a spell in Group Two will provide a chance to build a team for the future.  It remains to be seen if Murray will play but at least, if he doesn’t play, the possible ties against countries like Egypt or Estonia will still be winnable.

Who do we blame at the LTA for the situation a rich tennis nation like Britain finds itself in?  Well, I’m not sure to be honest.  Something has clearly been going wrong somewhere for a number of years but is it more to do with the British attitude towards tennis rather than any possible flaws with our system.

The LTA’s player director Steven Martens reckons that our 14, 15 and 16-year-old’s are so promising that in a few years time, we can count on them for some British success.  Optimistic is the word but bear in mind, as Neil Harman pointed out in The Times this week, as a journalist he has been listening to these pronouncements of future success for more than 25 years.  We can all but hope that this time, these pronouncements from Martens come true.

Spanish vs Czechs in the final

Believe it or not, Britain were actually in the World Group just last year.  It’s a level that now seems so far above us as Spain and the Czech Republic booked their places in the final over the weekend.

Israel had done fantastically well to reach the semi-final but were always going to find the going extremely tough against reigning champions Spain.  Even without their two highest ranked players Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco, it was still all over by the time the doubles finished on Saturday.  No surprise really when your second-rate team consists of David Ferrer, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Feliciano Lopez and Tommy Robredo.  Oh how we wish for such depth in British Tennis.

Despite Nadal’s absence on the court, it was still great to see him supporting his team from the sideline.  After missing last year’s final against Argentina, he will be hoping injury does not prevent him again missing out on yet another chance to win the Davis Cup.

Israel may have lost the tennis but gained some revenge in a football match against the Spanish team on Sunday.  Reaching the semi-finals is their best ever Davis Cup performance and despite a 4 – 1 defeat to Spain, they should be proud of their achievements this year.

It was the same result in the other semi-final between Croatia and Czech Republic and despite a fairly comprehensive looking scoreline, it could have been oh so different.  In a five set match lasting five hours and 59 minutes, Radek Stepanek gave the Czechs a huge boost with a crucial victory against the big-serving Ivo Karlovic.

The Croat hit a world record of 78 aces in the match and had four match points but could not close out the match, losing 16 – 14 in the final set.  This spurred Tomas Berdych on to another five set victory against Marin Cilic in the second singles rubber and the Czech pair clinched the tie with a comfortable straight sets win in the doubles on Saturday.

Going into December’s final, Spain are ultimately the favourites and given that they are also playing at home, there won’t be many putting money on the Czechs pulling off a shock victory.  That includes myself!

Brits in ATP action this week

Most weeks, Murray and Hutchins are our only Brits in ATP action but it’s good to see a few more in action this week in the 250 event in Metz.

Alex Bogdanovic narrowly missed out on a place in the singles main draw after a defeat to Sebastien De Chaunac in the final round of qualifying.  Boggo lost the first set 6 – 1 but levelled the match with the same scoreline reversed in the second set.  The final set went to a tie-break but despite Boggo having a match point at 6 – 5, De Chaunac saved it and went on to take the match.  Another case of so near, yet so far for Boggo.

Team Flemski AKA Fleming and Skupski have made the cut for the first time in an ATP event.  They have appeared in two ATP events previously, courtesy of wild cards, at Eastbourne and Queen’s where they of course, achieved that incredible win over the Bryan’s.  The pair have shown a lot of potential over the past year and with a lot of ranking points on offer this week compared to what they are used to on the challenger circuit, they have a good chance to move further up the rankings and establish themselves on the main ATP tour.

Hutchins is also in Metz and is seeded second with Australian Jordan Kerr.  This is Hutchins’ second different partner since the US Open where he played with regular partner Stephen Huss.  The rumours are that the two have decided to split, after only one win in the last ten events they played, although there seems to have been no official confirmation of this yet.  We’ll just have to wait and see but in the meantime, all the best to the Brits in ATP action this week!

Another comeback in the women’s game

After Kim Clijsters completed a remarkable comeback to the game by winning the US Open, there are reports coming out of Belgium that compatriot Justine Henin is to announce her return to competitive tennis on Tuesday.

Henin publically congratulated Clijsters on her own website just days after she won the last grand slam of the year and it seems now that this has spurred the former World No.1 to follow her compatriot back into the game.

All this makes for exciting times on the WTA tour which has been struggling with its profile in recent months.  The Clijsters comeback story gave it a huge boost and the return of Henin will further increase interest in the women’s game.  If someone had told you at the start of the year that Justine Henin will play Kim Clijsters on the tour in 2009, would you have believed them?  Well, it’s now a very real possibility!