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By Stuart Fraser

Paris serves up ace matches

Normally, the Paris Masters display the effects of a long season on players and sometimes, these players don’t even turn up for the penultimate event of the year.  Not last week though.  The world’s top five were all in attendance and along with the other 43 competitors in the main draw, they helped to make the tournament one to remember.

The emphasis last week was on the two remaining slots in the eight man field for the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals in London.  Yet, even players who had no chance of qualifying were producing memorable moments of brilliance in the French capital.

Marat Safin had a stunning first round victory over Thierry Ascione.  He looked to be facing an early exit in his last tournament as he faced three match points in total in the deciding set but he saved them all with first serve aces and went on to clinch a second round tie against Juan Martin Del Potro.

It was a more fitting match for the Russian to end his career with two US Open champions going head to head.  Safin took it to a final set where the Argentine was just too strong for him and after, a farewell presentation was held on court for one of the biggest characters in tennis who will be sadly missed.

Safin’s last match came on the Wednesday when tournament organisers had scheduled a very impressive order of play with all of the world’s top five in second round action on the main court.  Add the all-French clash between Gael Monfils and David Guez and Wednesday ticketholders would have been praising their luck.

Rafael Nadal’s match against Nicholas Almagro followed Safin’s presentation and the world No.2 produced a stunning performance to save five match points and eventually clinch the match 7-5 in the decider.  Nadal again showed his tremendous fighting spirit the following day when he beat another compatriot Tommy Robredo in the third round after Robredo choked when serving for the match at 5-4 in the third.

Roger Federer versus Julian Benneteau was another match to remember.  The Frenchman played the match of his life to come back from a set down against the Swiss and despite a straight sets defeat to Monfils the following day, Benneteau will never forget his victory against the greatest player to have ever played tennis and also the noise levels of the Parisian crowd when he sealed the win with an ace.

Andy Murray’s match against James Blake was the last on that massive order of play on Wednesday and it eventually ended on the Thursday at 1:45am local time as a three set win for the Scot.  I thought Nadal’s semi-final match against Fernando Verdasco at this Australian Open was going to win the ‘late finish of 2009 award’ for ending just after 1am but credit to Murray for finding a way to win in the middle of the night.

Gilles Simon is a player whose counter-attacking style makes him a player notoriously difficult to beat.  Just ask Ivan Ljubicic.  Simon was struggling to move with a knee injury towards the end of the deciding set in their second round match but as if often the case, it is not easy to play an injured opponent and Ljubicic was clearly uncertain over the best tactic which resulted in the Frenchman clinching an amazing win in the final set tie-break.

Other moments from Paris which spring to mind are Fernando Gonzalez’s retirement against Del Potro in the third round.  Gonzalez had seven match points in the second set but couldn’t convert any of them and Del Potro eventually levelled the match at one set all.  Despite having a chance to qualify for London, Gonzalez retired before the deciding set could begin and left the French crowd to head home on Thursday night feeling short changed.

Defending champion Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was knocked out in the quarter-finals on Friday leaving Monfils as the only home player left in the draw.  And he didn’t disappoint later that evening against Marin Cilic.  Despite going a set down, Monfils produced some amazing winners from seemingly impossible positions to mount the comeback and won the next two sets to clinch a place in the semis.

The tournament was full of memorable moments but in the end, it all came down to Monfils and Novak Djokovic to face off in a battle for the title on Sunday and the battle seemed a little one-sided at first.  Djokovic was in complete command of the match going up 6-2, 3-0 but once again, Monfils used the French crowd to help spur him onto a comeback which fell just short in the final set tiebreak where the Serb won it 7-3 to clinch his first Masters title of 2009.

Djokovic has been in impressive form in recent weeks and winning Basel and Paris back to back, including victories over Federer and Nadal, is no mean feat.  With the tremendous mental strength and resolve he showed when it really mattered yesterday, I see him as the favourite for the ATP World Tour Finals next week.

If London can replicate some of the magical moments we seen in Paris, then it will also be an event to remember.  The final eight have been decided and it’s shaping up to be an amazing spectacle on our own shores.  More on London next week when we take a look at each of the eight contenders!

Disappointment for Brits in Jersey

In a week when LTA Chief Executive Roger Draper expressed concern about the ability to negotiate competitive market rates with the BBC over TV rights for Wimbledon if the Championships are placed on the ‘crown jewels’ list of sporting events, isn’t it ironic that out of eight British players in the 32-man main draw at the Jersey Challenger, not one managed to make it past the second round.

We found out last week that the LTA received £29.2million from this year’s Championships to invest in British tennis.  If this amount is to be reduced in the future, then I fear for the future of the game in this country.  If the LTA can’t make good use of the vast amounts of money they are receiving at the moment, then how can the situation become any better if there is a reduction in the Wimbledon cash.

The Jersey event last week was the last of four challenger events to be held in the UK this year.  Four Brits were awarded wild cards which afforded those without a high enough ranking a chance to make the most of it and gain some valuable ranking points.  Three others gained direct entry and one out of ten Brits in the qualifying draw managed to play their way into the main draw.

Yet, only Dan Evans and Daniel Smethurst got through to the second round and both suffered straight set defeats.  Not a successful week for the Brits and the LTA have to be asked some serious questions as there appears to be no progress whatsoever in the men’s game.  If the Jersey results make grim reading, then this week’s rankings add yet more cause for concern.

We now have only two men in the top 200 with Murray at No.4 and Alex Bogdanovic at No.175 this week.  James Ward who was at No.187 in September has dropped to No.252 whilst Joshua Goodall has dropped to No.326 from No. 184 in July. 

This is a topic that could be discussed all night so I am going to finish with one possible solution.  Why not host more professional level events in this country?  This year, Great Britain hosted 24 pro events compared to 46 in Spain.  In this week’s men’s rankings, Spain have 11 top 100 players and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how many Great Britain have!

Robson continues to impress

Talking about the future of British tennis, 15-year-old Laura Robson is one of our big hopes and she notched up another couple of impressive wins at senior level last week at the $50k event in Minsk.

Ranked 419 last week, Robson recorded straight set wins over world No.208 Yuliya Beygelzimer and Tetyana Arefyeva, ranked 253, before going out in the quarter-finals to world No.116 Vitalia Diatchenko.

Yet more valuable experience for Robson who will team up with Andy Murray for Great Britain at January’s Hopman Cup in Australia.  The schedule has just been revealed and as well as playing mixed doubles with Murray, she will play singles matches against Elena Dementieva, Sabine Lisicki and Yaroslava Shvedova.

All three opponents are ranked within the top 100 and will provide tough tests for Robson.   All part of the learning experience though and the chance to be among some of the world’s best players is a great opportunity for the young Brit.

Murray practice for mixed

Murray talked earlier this year of getting some tips from his brother Jamie on how to play mixed doubles and in particular, the important art of keeping the female partner happy on court.  Something that Jamie was pretty good at during his 2007 Wimbledon mixed doubles title run with Jelena Jankovic.

Well, Andy will get some practice at keeping females happy when he appears on ITV1’s Loose Women this week.  The ‘Loose Women’ are notorious for not being shy in speaking their minds and it will be an interesting watch when they face up to the Scot.  Don’t miss it.  Get the Sky+ set now!