STUART FRASER

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TALKING BALLS 011 Ė MONDAY 9TH NOVEMBER 2009
By Stuart Fraser

Farewell to two legends

We have known all year that this was both Marat Safin and Fabrice Santoroís final season on tour.  Yet, it will still be a massive disappointment when these two legends walk off court for the final time in their respective careers at the Paris Masters this week.

In fact, Santoro has already walked off the singles court for the final time.  Disappointingly, tournament organisers scheduled his first round match against James Blake for yesterday meaning that TV viewers across the world missed out on his last match with coverage of Paris just getting underway today.

Santoro has had a fantastic 20 year career.  It isnít one that has been littered with major titles as his best achievement in singles at a grand slam is a quarter-final appearance at the 2006 Australian Open but to sustain such a long career at a high level is a tremendous achievement.

He has beaten some of the greats of the game including Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.  In fact, in total he has defeated 17 players who were ranked at No.1 at some time during their careers.  An incredible record!

Santoro has entertained crowds around the world with his unique style and cheery attitude on court.  I was lucky to see him in action on a few occasions at the Australian Open and his epic five set win over Philip Kohlschreiber under the floodlights in Melbourne is a match I will never forget.

The Frenchman was also a keen doubles player and won two grand slam titles at the Australian Open in 2003 and 2004 with Michael Llodra.  Spectators in Paris will get the chance to see his last ever professional match when he plays in the doubles this week with Sebastien Grosjean.  Shame the doubles arenít televised for us viewers back home!

Santoroís enjoyment and enthusiasm for the game has always been clear to see and he will be a huge miss on the tour.  There were rumours he might play in the 2010 Australian Open to achieve a record of playing grand slams in four different decades but it appears that this week will indeed be the last we see of The Magician.

Safin, like Santoro, is also a crowd entertainer.  The Russian has always been an extremely talented player and his on court outbursts and racquet smashing antics (many of which can be seen on YouTube) are part of what makes him one of the biggest characters on tour.

Safin burst onto the scene in 2000 with a straight sets victory at the US Open over Pete Sampras in the final and later that year, he became the world No.1 for a brief spell.  He then had a remarkable run to pick up his second and last grand slam title at the 2005 Australian Open where he beat home favourite Lleyton Hewitt in the final.

That tournament is remembered though for the stunning semi-final five set match between Safin and Federer.  The match lasted four and a half hours and Safin saved a match point before defeating Federer 9-7 in the deciding set to clinch the match at 12:25am.

Inconsistency has been his downfall though.  After a serious knee injury in late 2005, he never quite managed to get back to the top of the game although he still remained a dangerous opponent, highlighted by his surprise semi-final run at Wimbledon last year.

This year though, he has lost several matches from winnable positions and his first round match in Paris was almost the same.  However, in front of the French national football team, he produced a bit of magic to save three match points against Thierry Ascione with three aces and went on to clinch the match in the final set tie-break and ensure a mouth-watering second round match against world No.5 Juan Martin Del Potro.

Could Safin round off his career in style in Paris?  Iím not so sure but whatever happens this week, the Russian will be remembered as a true character and as someone that was capable, at times, of producing stunning tennis that any opponent would struggle to deal with.

So itís farewell to two legends in Paris this week and perhaps a fitting way to end this tribute is with a quote from Safin who finishes his career on the wrong end of a 7-2 head to head record against Santoro.  Safin once said: ďBeing told I was to play Santoro was being told I was to die.Ē

A quote that just sums up the two players.  Safin for his humorous outbursts and Santoro for his unique style which would frustrate the worldís best.  Thanks for the memories!

Who will win in Paris?

The Paris Masters has always been a tough tournament to call.  It comes at the end of a tough season and usually, the players who perform best here are the ones looking to clinch their place at the season-ending tournament which is this year entitled the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals.

A look at the list of previous champions show that itís not always the top players who win here.  Understandable considering these players (Federer & Rafael Nadal for example) have usually already qualified for the last tournament of the year.

However, Iím not so sure that this will be the case in Paris this week.  All of the worldís top five come into Paris fairly fresh and I think that they may want to send out a marker to the rest ahead of the World Tour Finals in London which start on Sunday 22 November.

Federer looked to be in excellent form in Basel last week until he met Novak Djokovic in the final.  The Swiss was playing in his home town and going for his fourth consecutive title here but seemed to be nervy against his Serbian rival on his own patch.

The big moment of the match for me was when Djokovic served for the first set at 5-4.  What followed was a marathon 12 minute game where both players squandered several chances to win the game.  Eventually, Djokovic clinched the game and set and although Federer won the second set, the Serb eased to victory in the decider to claim a big win over the world No.1.

Just like the US Open final this year, Federer played a poor final set and his forehand was very inconsistent.  It will be interesting to see how he performs in his final two tournaments of the year.  After a record breaking season, the pressure is now off him but has the motivation also gone when it comes to these tight matches?

Andy Murray had an impressive return from injury in Valencia.  The Scot was well tested in tough matches against Leonardo Mayer and Fernando Verdasco but came through these tight affairs to go on to clinch the title with a comfortable straight sets win over Mikhail Youzhny in the final.

It was an ideal tournament for Murray to return to action and he now looks in good shape heading into Paris and London.  He has a good chance of claiming back the world No.3 ranking before the season ends.  In fact, if he wins in Paris, no matter what Djokovic does, the Scot will be back above him in the rankings.

Nadal and Del Potro are also possible title contenders this week.  Both last played in Shanghai and will be suitably rested to mount a challenge.  Nadalís injury problems have been well documented but you can never count out the Spaniard, as highlighted by his run to the final in China last month.

Del Potro has struggled since his US Open win with a wrist injury and will be looking for his first win since winning his first grand slam title at Flushing Meadows in September.  If he has fully recovered from his injury problems and shows some of the form we seen in New York, then he is a player that can cause serious problems for any opponent he comes up against.

Then of course, there are those who are looking to secure their place at the World Tour Finals.  Two spots remain which Nikolay Davydenko and Fernando Verdasco currently occupy and itís hard to see any of the five possible challengers snatching their places away from them.

Robin Soderling, Fernando Gonzalez and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga must at least reach the final to have a chance whilst Radek Stepanek and Marin Cilic must win the tournament.  All are very good players but I think these scenarioís are a bit too much to ask for considering their recent form.

So itís all set up nicely for an intriguing week in Paris.  I still think predicting the winner is a tough call but Iím confident that the eight top players we begin the week with will be the same we end it with after the last ball is hit in the French capital.

Inglot shows encouraging signs

I must admit, the first I heard of Britainís Dominic Inglot was at the Glasgow Futures last month where he won the doubles with Chris Eaton and ran eventual champion Yannick Mertens close in the last 16 of the singles.

After completing his studies in America, Inglot joined the tour full-time at the end of July and has quietly made his way up the rankings.  However, two stunning results last week in a challenger in Charlottesville, USA has made us all stand up and take notice.

The Brit was ranked 1,104 at the start of last week before receiving a wild card into the main draw in Charlottesville thanks to local connections.  And he certainly made the most of it.

Inglot reached the quarter-finals beating world No.205 Ilja Bozoljac and world No. 164 Roko Baranusic along the way.  He also reached the final of the doubles with Rylan Rizza and narrowly lost in the champions tiebreak 11-9.

His results last week have pushed him up to 770 in the singles rankings and 344 in doubles.  It has been an impressive few months for the 23-year-old and we watch his progress with keen interest!

Italy win Fed Cup

No surprises in Reggio Calabria over the weekend with Italy beating the USA 4-0 to clinch the Fed Cup.

It was always on the cards after Serena Williams withdrew from the team.  The absence of the world No.1 meant Melanie Oudin and Alexa Glatch were fielded for the singles and considering that their opponents were ranked within the top 20, it was going to be a tough ask for the USA to even win a match on Italian soil.

That was indeed the way it panned out when Italy won the doubles match to clinch the whitewash.  As I said, no surprises and a fairly low-key end to the 2009 womenís season.