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By Stuart Fraser

A stunning finale to 2009

It was the first time the season-ending championships had been held in London and what a success it was.  In its first year of hosting the event, the O2 Arena has already been proclaimed as one of the most stunning tennis venues in the world and the quality of play on court lived up to its surroundings.

There weren’t too many who predicted that Nikolay Davydenko would go on to win the title but the energetic Russian is always capable of producing these sort of results.  I hate to admit it but you may remember that last week’s Talking Balls had Davydenko down as a dark horse for the title.

Despite losing narrowly to Novak Djokovic in his first round-robin match, Davydenko stepped up to the plate and produced his best tennis to go on to defeat all this year’s grand slam champions en route to the title.  That, in itself, is enough to make him a worthy winner.

The round-robin stage adds a whole new element to consider compared to the usual run-of-the-mill knockout draws at just about every other tennis tournament in the calendar.  Unfortunately for some though, it appears to confuse rather than entertain.

And that seemed to be the case for those inside the O2 Arena on Thursday night, including ATP officials and Juan Martin Del Potro.  The scenes which followed the Argentine’s excellent victory over Roger Federer were nothing short of farcical. 

Most of the TV viewers at home were well aware of the permutations going into the third set thanks to the commentators.  Why weren’t those who were actually at the event, including the players, also made aware of what was going on?

The round-robin format has a history of haunting the ATP.  Some of you may remember the fiasco in 2007 when James Blake was the victim of a cock-up at the Las Vegas Open.  The rules and permutations need to be made clearer next year for everyone concerned.

Normally, two wins in the group stage would be enough for a player to qualify for the semi-finals but not so for Andy Murray and Djokovic.  It was a strange scenario but one that was completely right by the rulebook and shows the competitiveness of this tournament. 

By the way, I have no hesitation in admitting that Talking Balls stated last week that the Serb was my pick for the tournament.  Only right considering the earlier gloat over my dark horse tip.

Robin Soderling was very impressive in his run to the semis, and even more so when you consider that he only got in as an alternate for the injured Andy Roddick.  It will be interesting to see if he can go up a further level in his game next year.

Del Potro also showed signs of the form we seen at the US Open earlier this year.  At just 21-years-old, he has the world at his feet and is clearly a contender to eventually replace Federer at the top of the rankings.  It was a shame that he had to take on Davydenko in the final only 15 hours after winning an epic deciding tie-break against Soderling and it clearly showed.

Perhaps the scheduling could be looked at next year?  Although I agree with the doubles being played before the singles as a warm-up for the main event, 8:45pm is too late a start time for the singles matches which meant that some fans had to leave early to catch the last tube home.  It also ensured late nights for the players who would have to go through their lengthy post match routine before even getting a chance to nod off.

Overall though, the event went extremely well for its first year.  The venue was amazing.  The sound and light show added to the experience and the crowds turned out in force.  More than 250,000 people turned out in total for the eight days play and that can only be good for British tennis.

A mention must also be given to Sky Sports’ excellent TV coverage.  All the doubles and singles matches were shown and the viewer was given a real behind the scenes insight into just about every aspect of the tournament from the stringer to the trainer.  Couple that with the pundits’ expert knowledge and you have a winning broadcasting formula.

It was also great to see the BBC show some of the singles matches on free-to-air TV.  As I said last week, the majority of the British public only see tennis during the Wimbledon fortnight and this will help to make them aware that high-quality tennis is played all year round.

After a stunning week for tennis, the juices are already flowing for next season and indeed, the next ATP World Tour Finals next November.  The tournament truly has found a great home for the next three years!

Looking back on the year

After the last ball was hit in yesterdays final, the thoughts invariably looked back on some of the most memorable tennis moments of 2009.

It all started in Australia last January.  After his title win in Doha, Murray was the favourite for the first grand slam of the year.  And that wasn’t just the view of the British press.  I remember picking up a copy of Australian newspaper ‘The Age’ which had a full front page picture of Murray in their sports pull-out just days before the tournament.

Despite the expectation though, it wasn’t to be.  Fernando Verdasco produced some stunning tennis to knock Murray out in a fourth round five-setter on his way to a semi-final match against Rafael Nadal.

Now that the season is over, the battle of the two Spaniards in Melbourne is, without a doubt, my favourite match of 2009.  The shot-making was incredible with Verdasco producing 95 winners but Nadal was resolute, showing awesome defence which would often be followed by stunning winners.

In a match that lasted five hours 14 minutes and finished just after 1am local time, it was Nadal who come out on top with the crucial break in the tenth game of the deciding set to win the match and set up the dream final against Federer.

In truth though, that final was never going to fully live up to the all-Spanish semi but it wasn’t far off it.  The two rivals fought out another excellent five set match with Nadal winning the decider 6-2 to clinch his sixth grand slam title.

The tears from defeated Federer at the presentation ceremony made many wonder if the Swiss would actually go on to equal Sampras’ record of fourteen grand slams.  Well, he didn’t just go onto equal it.  He broke it with stunning back-to-back victories at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.

Soderling deserves a bit of thanks though from Federer.  The Swede was responsible for the biggest tennis shock of 2009 when he knocked four-time French Open champion Nadal out in the fourth round in Paris.  I will never forget sitting on my couch absolutely stunned when Nadal’s pick-up went wide to give Soderling a famous victory.

But then Federer nearly followed Nadal out the exit door the day after when he was two sets to love down against Tommy Haas.  He showed tremendous grit and determination however to save a break point at 3-4 in the third set and came back to win the match.  He then survived another five setter against Del Potro in the semis and went on to win his first French Open with a straight sets win over Soderling.

Murraymania was at a high before Wimbledon after Murray’s victory at Queens.  The dream of a British Wimbledon winner was kept alive by the Scot’s fourth-round win over Stanislas Wawrinka in an amazing five set match played under the new Centre Court roof at night.

However, Andy Roddick ended British hopes when he knocked out Murray in the semis with one of the best performances of his career.  The American also produced another stunning performance in a dramatic five set final against Federer but fell just short in the marathon deciding set which the Swiss won 16-14.

It was the win that earned Federer his 15th grand slam title and acclaim as the greatest player of all time but even he couldn’t stop Del Potro winning his first grand slam at the US Open in September.

It was yet another stunning five set grand slam final but early on, Federer looked odds on for the match when he served for a two set to love lead at 5-4.  Del Potro came back though to level the match and despite then going two sets to one down, he found a second wind to win the fourth set tie break and the deciding set to complete a remarkable victory.

Looking at 2009 from a British point of view, it has been a disappointing year for our Davis Cup team.  Defeats to Ukraine and Poland ensured our relegation to Group Two and the earliest we can get back into the World Group is now 2012.

However, Colin Fleming and Ken Skupski have given us hope with a tremendous season in doubles.  The pair picked up two ATP titles in Metz and St. Petersburg and also had a famous win over the Bryan Brothers at Queens.  A home-grown established doubles pairing will be a great boost for Davis Cup doubles rubbers and it will be great to see them performing regularly on the main tour next year.

Dan Evans has also shown some potential for the future.  The 19-year-old currently sits at No.260 in the world rankings and won his first challenger in Jersey earlier this year.  Evans is now well placed to move even further up the rankings in 2010 and will hopefully move closer to joining Murray in the top 100.

Murray suffers blow to Oz Open chances

Looking ahead to 2010, Murray’s hopes of victory at the Australian Open have been dealt a blow by his early exit in London last week.  He missed out on qualifying for the semi-finals by a single game and is now set to be seeded fifth in Melbourne next month.

Although the Scot clinched the year-end No.4 spot in today’s world rankings, he is set to drop down to No.5 on January 11 when he loses the 250 ranking points he earned for winning the Qatar Open in Doha earlier this year.

He has chosen not to defend that title next month in favour of playing in the Hopman Cup exhibition event in Perth, Australia, which offers no ranking points.  This means that Del Potro will overtake Murray in the rankings by only five points.

With the Australian Open beginning on January 18 and the seedings being taken from the previous week’s rankings, it means that Murray will now likely have to beat three of the world’s top four in a row, presuming results go according to seedings, if he is to win his first grand slam down under. 

Davis Cup Final

All this talk about the season being over, yet for two countries it’s not quite done yet.  Spain take on Czech Republic on the clay of Barcelona this weekend in the Davis Cup Final which promises to be an intriguing encounter.

Before last week, Spain were the clear favourites but last week’s results in London have given the Czechs a bit of hope.  Both Nadal and Verdasco lost all their matches and considering that Stepanek had impressive back-to-back semi-final runs in Basel and Paris recently, then this tie is not as easy to predict as most people would think.

Consider also that Stepanek and Tomas Berdych have won all their Davis Cup doubles rubbers together this year.  The Spanish may just have a little too much for the Czechs though considering the tie is on clay.  It’s well worth a watch on Sky Sports this weekend and I go for a narrow 3-2 victory for Spain.

Last Talking Balls of 2009

Talking Balls will be taking an off-season break for the next four weeks.  Thanks for all the support and feedback over the past few months and hope you all have a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Talking Balls will be back on January 4, 2010 in time for the new season.  Looking forward to it already!