STUART FRASER

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TALKING BALLS 015 Ė MONDAY 4TH JANUARY 2010
By Stuart Fraser

Let the 2010 season get underway

We are only just days into 2010 and the new season has already arrived.  Itís not much of an off-season for the tennis pros but despite the flaws with the ATP calendar, like it or lump it, they just have to get on with it.

Itís not right though.  Look at the golf calendar for example.  Right now, the worldís best golfers are in the middle of their off-season break.  World No.9 Rory McIlroyís last tournament of 2009 finished on November 22 in Dubai and the young Northern Irishman wonít return to action until January 21 in Abu Dhabi.

Compare this to Rafael Nadal.  The Spaniardís last match in 2009 was on December 6 in the Davis Cup Final and he was back in action for the new season on New Yearís Day in Abu Dhabi.  With all due respect to golf, tennis is a far more punishing sport on the body and something needs to be done by those in charge to prevent player burnout.

I suppose though for tennis fans, itís not so bad.  Football supporters have to wait three months to see their team in action from the end of a season to the beginning of a new one, so maybe us tennis spectators should count ourselves lucky in that respect.

The juices are flowing ahead of the Australian Open which gets underway two weeks today in Melbourne.  The players are in preparation mode and itís interesting to look at the different schedules they have all created in an attempt to give themselves the best possible chance of lifting the first slam of the year.

The top two, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, both kicked 2010 off at the Abu Dhabi exhibition event on New Yearís Day.  Despite a semi-final exit to Robin Soderling, Federer looked impressive in the third place play-off against David Ferrer and will have enjoyed his two days of match practice in the UAE. 

Meanwhile, Nadal looked back to his previous self in his two matches and his win over Soderling in the final will have given him some much needed confidence on court before attempting to retain his Australian Open title.

Both Roger and Rafa are now in Doha for their first ATP event of the year.  Looking at the draw, you canít look past a final between the top two considering that defending champion Andy Murray has decided for a different path to Melbourne this year.

Murray is already down under and kicked off his year today at the Hopman Cup mixed event in Perth.  The Scot teamed up with 15-year-old Laura Robson to represent Great Britain and the pair beat Kazakhstan 2 Ė 1 in their opening group match.  Tough matches to come later this week though against Germany and Russia.

Itís an interesting change of schedule for Murray who in previous years has went from his pre-season training block in Miami to Scotland for Christmas to Doha followed by Australia.  After poor performances at the Australian Open though in previous years, he has decided to go straight from the USA to Oz this year and letís hope it reaps the rewards.

His schedule change has come with a price though.  As he will not be defending the 250 points he won in Doha last year, that means Juan Martin Del Potro will become the new world No.4 next week and Murray will be seeded fifth for the Australian Open.

Itís a seeding that could see him having to beat three of the worldís top four from the quarter-finals onwards if he is to win his first slam but there is no doubting that Murray has the talent to do this.

Interesting to see that Del Potro and Novak Djokovic will only play at the Kooyong exhibition event ahead of the Australian open.  It could be a wise move as it extends their off-season break by at least a week after a punishing season for both.  But would they be better served by getting in some early game time at one of the ATP events this week? 

Who has chosen the best path to glory at the Australian Open?  Only time will tell.

Good start to the year for the Brits

Nice to see Murray and Robson get a win for Great Britain today in Perth but for me, the best British tennis news of the week so far has came courtesy of James Ward and Elena Baltacha.

Ward has had an interesting off-season having practiced with Nadal on the Spaniardís home island of Majorca for a couple of weeks last month.  The experience has obviously served him well as he won his three qualifying matches in the Chennai ATP 250 event to qualify for the main draw.

His qualifying run included impressive victories over Marsel Ilhan and Noam Okun, and Ward has been handed a kind first round draw against world No.91 Marcel Granollers.  Itís all great experience for Ward which will serve him well when he attempts to qualify for the Australian Open at Melbourne Park next week.

Elena Baltacha also had an impressive qualifying run to gain entry to the $220k WTA event in Auckland.  A great start to the year for the Scot who unlike Ward, will not have to qualify for the Australian Open as her current ranking of 84 guarantees her direct entry into the main draw which must be such a great peace of mind to have.

It has been great to see several Brits try out qualifying at the main ATP and WTA tour events this week.  Sadly, Dan Evans, Naomi Cavaday and Katie OíBrien all failed in their efforts but hopefully the exploits of Ward and Baltacha this week will provide them with positive encouragement that it can be done.

As well as the singles, we also have British interest in the ATP doubles in Brisbane and Chennai this week.  Ross Hutchins teams up with new permanent partner Jordan Kerr in Australia.  The pair had some encouraging results at the tail end of last year, including a run to the final of the Japan 500 event where they were defeated in a tight champions tie-break by Julian Knowle and Jurgen Melzer.

In India, Colin Fleming and Ken Skupski hope to carry on their stunning form from last year into 2010.  Their present rankings mean that they should be ATP Tour regulars this year and it would be great to see them take their unique partnership to the next level.  The pair face a tough potential quarter-final match though against home favourites, Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna.

As always, good luck to all the Brits in action this week.

Irish tennis also on a high

Itís not been a bad few days either for the Irish.  The country is not renowned for their tennis players but Louk Sorensen, ranked 293 in the world, has provided Irish tennis fans with some new year cheer after becoming the first Irishman to qualify for an ATP main draw in the 21st century.

Sorensen won his three qualifying matches in Chennai to earn a first round tie against Stephane Robert, of France.  Itís a great effort from the Irishman and one that was almost matched in the same week by compatriot Conor Niland.

Niland, ranked 287, fell just short in the final round of qualifying in Doha.  He lost in a final set tie-break to World No.122 Steve Darcis but, just like Sorensen, his confidence will be on a high ahead of Australian Open qualifying next week.

In fact, this makes the potential Davis Cup Europe/Africa Zone Group 2 match between Great Britain and Ireland all the more intriguing.  If the Brits win away to Lithuania and Ireland win their tie at home to Turkey in March, then the two countries will meet each other on Irish soil in July.

And with Murray announcing that he is stepping aside from the Davis Cup for the next tie to allow the younger players to gain some experience, then the potential Ireland V Great Britain match could be a lot closer than expected, provided the Scot doesnít decide to come back for this tie against our neighbours from across the sea.

A nice touch at the Hopman Cup

Good to see that the Hyundai Aces program is in operation at this yearís Hopman Cup.  For every ace served during the tournament. Hyundai will donate $25 to the Kids Tennis Foundation who provide tennis coaching for socially and financially disadvantaged children in Australia.  A cheque of around $10,000 is expected to be handed over at the end of the tournament.

A shame though that Ivo Karlovic is in Doha this week.  The big-serving Croat would surely add a few more dollars to that cheque if he was competing in Perth. 

In all seriousness though, a great initiative from the tournament sponsors and itís all for a worthwhile cause!