STUART FRASER

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TALKING BALLS 013 Ė MONDAY 23RD NOVEMBER 2009
By Stuart Fraser

Season ends in London

For many British onlookers, the tennis season consists solely of the Wimbledon fortnight.  However, the ATP World Tour Finals in London this week may just make them realise that thereís plenty more action to be seen in the tennis world outside the confines of SW19.

Eight of the worldís top players are in the British capital for the season-ending event at the O2 Arena and what an event it promises to be.  Watching the opening dayís play yesterday, I was more than impressed with all aspects of the tournament from the size of the venue through to the glitzy lighting and pumping music.

Itís a great coup for British Tennis to have this event on our own shores and hopefully it will help to increase interest in the sport.  Itís the second biggest tennis stadium after the Arthur Ashe Stadium with around 17,000 people expected to attend each session.

I donít think anyone could argue with the line-up of players in London hoping to end their season on a high note.  Each has qualified on their own merit and whilst itís disappointing that Andy Roddick had to withdraw through injury, Robin Soderling is a worthy replacement.  Here, we take a look at each of the contenders for the last tournament of the year.

Itís been a record breaking year for Roger Federer but who could have seen it coming after the tears we saw in Melbourne following his defeat in the Australian Open final.  The Swiss went on though to win his first French Open to equal Pete Samprasí record of 14 grand slam titles and then broke it with victory at Wimbledon in July.

Having recaptured the world No.1 ranking, life got even better for the newly married man with the birth of twin daughters Charlene and Myla.  Federer was clearly very happy and content with life and it showed in his form with some stunning play on the way to the US Open Final.

However, he went on to lose that match and has had a couple of disappointing results since with defeat in the final of his hometown tournament in Basel and he suffered an early exit from Paris going out to Julian Benneteau in the second round.  You can never write the greatest player of all time off though and he will be looking to secure the year end No.1 ranking with victory in London.

Rafael Nadal may have something to say about that though.  Itís been a frustrating injury-hit year for the Spaniard and his last tournament win was in Rome in May but amazingly, he can still give himself a chance of going back to the top of the rankings if he wins the title.

It all looked so good for Nadal at the start of the year when he confirmed his all-court prowess with a five-set victory over Federer in the Australian Open final to clinch his sixth grand slam title but he has suffered from knee tendinitis which denied him the chance to defend his Wimbledon crown.  However, his run to the final in Shanghai last month shows that you canít write him off.

Novak Djokovic is the clear in-form favourite having won both the Basel 500 and Paris Masters 1000 events back to back recently.  He struggled with his new racket at the start of the year but the form we saw at the 2008 Australian Open is back and he is my pick for the tournament.

The Serb has won the most matches of any player on the tour this year and deservedly will give himself a chance of achieving a career high ranking of No.2 if he wins his third title in a row here.

Andy Murray is the big local hope and is in with a great chance, considering that he has won the most titles this year out of all the contenders.  The Scot though has suffered a couple of disappointing grand slam results with fourth round exits at the US and Australian Openís.

But the courts at the O2 Arena should suit Murray with seven of his 14 career title wins coming on the indoor hard surface.  Considering also that he will be backed by the majority of the 17,000 strong crowd, itís a great chance for Murray to send out a message ahead of 2010 where he will hope to win his first grand slam.

Juan Martin Del Potro beat Murray to a slam when he won his first at the US Open in September with an epic five set victory over Federer in the final.  Itís been a breakthrough year for the Argentine and he can blast anyone off the court with his strong-hitting.

Since that US Open win though, he has struggled with injury and hasnít quite replicated the form we saw in New York.  A run to the final here could see him overtake Murray in the rankings.

Nikolay Davydenko is a dark horse for the title and he has shown that he can beat anyone on his day.  Consecutive wins over Djokovic and Nadal on his way to the title in Shanghai last month prove that.

However, he failed to make it past the quarter-finals in any of the other Masters events and grand slams this year which highlights a lack of consistency.  Never dismiss the Russian though.

Fernando Verdasco has enjoyed his best ever season which is no doubt a result of the hard work he has put in off the court with Gil Reyes, Andre Agassiís former fitness coach.  The Spaniard had a tremendous semi-final run at the Australian Open which has been a major confidence booster for him.

Verdasco though seems to lack the cutting edge in tournaments with only one title win in 22 events this year.  He will do well to come through the round-robin stage but I canít see him making the final.

Finally, Soderling is famous for the biggest tennis shock of 2009 when he knocked Nadal out of the French Open on his way to the final.  Just like Verdasco, that run into the latter stages of a grand slam has seemed to instill so much confidence in him since.

But also similar to Verdasco is the fact he has only won one title this year.  He will have to show us some of that French Open form again if he is to have a chance here but donít rule him out completely considering that three of his four career titles have been won indoors.

Doubles action also features strongly at the O2 Arena this week with the top eight doubles pairs all competing.  The doubles matches are scheduled before the singles matches this week which should help to raise the profile of doubles which, at most events, usually comes after the big singles matches on the main courts.

Sky Sports are also televising all the doubles matches so itís a great chance for these players to show what a highly entertaining game it can be.  Iím sure that will be the case with the Bryan Brothers and current World No.1ís Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic among those taking part.

So, the stage is set for a fascinating finale to the 2009 menís season in London.  Sit back and enjoy!

2009 over for Jamie Murray

Whilst 16 doubles players enjoy the unusual limelight at the O2 Arena this week, one absentee is Jamie Murray who announced last Friday that his disappointing season has come to an end

It would have been nice to have some British representation in the doubles but sadly none of our players were anywhere near qualifying.  Jamie fell more than 100 places in the rankings from No.27 in February to No.135 in August. 

Ross Hutchins also didnít have the best of years, splitting up with partner Stephen Huss after the US Open, and Colin Fleming and Ken Skupskiís excellent form at ATP level came too late in the year to push for a place in the top eight.  However, I wouldnít be too surprised if we see Team Flemski in London next year.

And hopefully we see Jamie there too.  Itís been a tough year for the Scot who has failed to find a permanent partner out of the nine he has played with since January.  He also lost his place in the British Davis Cup squad which must have been disappointing for him, especially since one of the home ties was played on Scottish soil at Braehead.

However, since dropping out of the top 100 at the end of July, Jamie has found his form again at challenger level winning four titles and is now on the brink of achieving double figures in the rankings again as he sits at No.106 in this weekís list.

Brother Andy recently summed his older siblingís season up well when he said: ďThe first six, seven months of the year weren't good and he kind of went off the boil a bit.

ďBut it's amazing, when you start putting the work in, what happens to the results. I've spoken to him about it. I think he's got his focus back. He kind of realised, when he started to drop in the rankings, that he needed to be more serious to get back up there.Ē

It canít have been easy for Jamie having to cope mentally with the drop from the glitz and glamour of the main tour to the second-rate challenger circuit.  But clearly, he has realised that hard work reaps rewards and he will now join Andy in Miami for the infamous pre-season training block next month.

Having read the Miami blogs on Andyís website in previous years, the training is not for the faint hearted and the news that Jamie will take part for the first time is very encouraging.  Hopefully it helps to spark a return to the big-time for Jamie next year!

Brits in Helsinki

Most Tennis watchers will have both eyes firmly on the action from the O2 arena this week but we canít forget that life continues for the lower-ranked players on the challenger and futures circuits and several Brits are in Helsinki this week for the 106,500EUR event.

Alex Bogdanovic and Dan Evans are our representatives in the singles main draw.  Sadly, Fleming just missed out on qualifying after a final round loss to Robin Haase.  A tough match-up for Fleming considering that Haase was once ranked as high as No.56.  The Dutchman currently sits at No.667 having only recently returned to action at the Jersey challenger after a long spell out through injury.

Evans has also received a tough draw in the first round against world No.113 Bjorn Phau who, like Haase, was also once ranked in the fifties.  It will be a good test though for the 19-year-old who is still finding his feet at this level.  Bogdanovic plays Stephane Bohli in his first match.

Fleming may have missed out on the singles but heís straight into the doubles main draw with Skupski as second seeds whilst Hutchins and Horia Tecau are top seeds.  Jonathan Marray also features with Australian Joseph Sirianni and the Brit will be looking to gain some more ranking points having recently entered the top 100.

Other Brits in action across the globe this week include Jamie Baker who faces 17-year-old American prospect Ryan Harrison in the first round of the Puebla challenger in Mexico.  Richard Bloomfield has qualified for the main draw here and faces wild card Greg Oulette. 

Canít forget the women too.  Elena Baltacha is in Toyota, Japan for a $75k ITF event.  The Scot has struggled with injury since entering the top 100 in September and has only played two events since then.  A win in Japan though should help to secure that place in the top 100 for the first few months of 2010 at least.  

I imagine this will be the last week of action in 2009 for some of the Brits.  Some good British results coupled with a title win for Murray at the ATP World Tour Finals would round the year off nicely!