STUART FRASER

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TALKING BALLS 017 Ė MONDAY 18TH JANUARY 2010
By Stuart Fraser

Australian Open gets underway

The fridge is full.  The sleeping pattern has changed.  Iím all set for the first grand slam of the year.  Are you?

The Australian Open might not be one of the easiest of tournaments to follow if you are watching from the UK.  But for those of us who stay up during the wee small hours, itís well worth the effort.

The first grand slam of the year is known for producing some magical moments.  Andy Roddickís marathon win over Younes El Aynaoui in 2003, Marat Safinís tournament win in 2005 and Rafael Nadalís epic match with Fernando Verdasco last year are a few that spring to mind.

Iím sure there will be another one or two this year, and I donít want to miss them so thatís why I will be living during the night and sleeping during the day over the next fortnight.

Yes, in these modern times of Sky+ and on-demand online replays, I could just watch it the morning after but that wouldnít be the same.  Nothing beats the thrill of live televised sport and anyway, if I was to settle for watching a replay, there is no doubt I would find out the outcome before I watch it.

Thereís nothing worse than recording sport to watch later and trying to avoid the result.  Itís inevitable that by some quirk of fate, you find it out which ruins your viewing experience.

Itís something which wonít happen to me over the next two weeks, and Iím glad because itís set to be a fascinating tournament which I am finding it extremely hard to predict a winner.

A quick look at the menís draw brings up at least 10 names for which you could argue a case for.  Itís one of the most open grand slams I can remember for a good while.

Roger Federer is rightly the favourite.  The 15-time grand slam winner, unlike this time last year, has no pressure on his shoulders, and seems extremely relaxed and care-free.

Will this work against him though?  Does he still have the extra edge and drive to win in crucial moments? Defeats to Juan Martin Del Potro in New York, Novak Djokovic in Basel, Julian Benneteau in Paris and Nikolay Davydenko in London and Doha suggest that this may be the case.

After the ATP World Tour Finals in London, I wouldnít have given Nadal a hope in hell of defending his title in Melbourne.  But his form in the first few weeks of 2010 has shown that he is in with a good chance.

The Spaniardís performances in Abu Dhabi and Doha will have been a boost for his confidence, and his groundstrokes appear to have the depth that was lacking towards the end of last year.

Djokovic returns to the site of his only grand slam triumph in 2008, and provided he gets off to a good start in his first couple of rounds, I think the Serb could regain the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup.

He seems to play his best tennis on hard courts, as highlighted by his impressive form at the end of last year when he won Basel and Paris back-to-back.  He didnít show the same form at Kooyong last week but you never know how much to look into exhibition results.

Del Potro is going for back-to-back slams, and if he turns up with the form he showed in New York, then itís hard to see anyone who can stop him.  But the problem is, since he won his maiden grand slam, we havenít seen that form again.

Injuries have played a big part though in that, and there are murmurs that the Argentine is struggling with a wrist injury in Oz.  If that is the case, then it will no doubt have an impact on the massive power he can generate off his groundstrokes.

Andy Murray showed some devastating form in the Hopman Cup two weeks ago, and there appears to be a bit of extra bite behind his forehand.  There is no denying that he has the tools and talent to win a grand slam but will it be at Melbourne Park where he has never got past the fourth round?

Itís a strange statistic considering that the Scot is at his best on hard courts.  He changed his pre-tournament schedule this year though, and I donít think he will ever have felt better going into the first grand slam of the year.

As we discussed last week, Davydenko is in impressive form having won the Qatar Open after back-to-back victories over Federer and Nadal.  Just like Murray though, we know he can do it at the smaller tournaments.  Can he sustain that level of play over a fortnight at a grand slam?

Other names to add to the mix include Roddick and Robin Soderling.  The American is no stranger to the big occasions and had a good win in Brisbane recently.  Meanwhile, the Swede appeared to grow and grow in confidence last year, and his run to the semi-finals on the hard courts at the ATP World Tour Finals was very impressive.

Donít rule out Verdasco, Fernando Gonzalez and Marin Cilic or even home favourite Lleyton Hewitt either.  If any of them hit a bit of form, then there is no limits to how far they could go in the tournament.

The womenís draw is also extremely intriguing with the return of Justine Henin.  Add Kim Clijsters, Maria Sharapova and the Williams sisters into the mix, and just like the menís draw, itís not easy to pick a winner.

Clijsters provided an incredible comeback story when she won the US Open last year, and itís very possible that her fellow countrywoman Henin could do the same at Melbourne Park.

The pair fought out an incredible final in Brisbane recently with Clijsters just edging Henin in the deciding tiebreak.  Despite Heninís loss, it was a match that showed she wonít need too much match practice to compete at the highest level again.

The Williams sisters are players you can never rule out of the equation.  Serena is back at a grand slam after that infamous outburst at an official in New York, and Venus will be hoping for better form in the grand slams than last year.

Other names that spring to mind are Dinara Safina and Caroline Wozniacki.  Can Safina overcome her serving demons and win her first grand slam?  19-year-old Wozniacki must be in with a shout after reaching the final at the US Open last year.

There is also the story of Yanina Wickmayer.  The Belgian returned in Auckland last week after having her one-year ban for failing to report her whereabouts on three occasions to the World Doping Agency overturned.

And what a return it was.  She won the title with a straight sets win over Flavia Pennetta.  The world No.16 then had to come through qualifying at Melbourne Park as her ban wasnít overturned in time for her to gain direct entry to the main draw.

Itís stories like these which make the first grand slam of 2010 absolutely mouth-watering.  I suppose I better predict a winner. 

Djokovic and Serena for me.  Now sit back and enjoy what promises to be a fascinating fortnight!

Doubles action

As well as all the Brits competing in the singles, good luck to those in the doubles as well.

Itís been a good start to the year for our doubles specialists.  Jamie Murray is back in the top 100 after winning a challenger event with Jonathan Marray in Salinas, Ecuador. 

Sadly Jamie wonít be competing in Oz this year but it sets him up nicely for a return to the ATP World Tour when he & Marray compete in Santiago, Chile next month.

Those who are competing in Oz go into the tournament in good form.  Ross Hutchins and new permanent partner for 2010 Jordan Kerr reached the final of Sydney picking up a couple of impressive wins along the way.  Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic were, not surprisingly, just too good for them in the final though.

Hutchins & Kerr havenít received the easiest of draws in Melbourne, playing the Polish pairing of Mariusz Fyrstenberg and Marcin Matkowski in the first round.  However, they will go into this match with confidence after their good run last week, and since Kerr is from Australia, hopefully they will get some vocal home support behind them.

Colin Fleming and Ken Skupski also should go into the Australian Open with high hopes for a deep run after their semi-final appearance at Chennai a fortnight ago.  The pair showed some stunning form towards the end of 2009, and if they can take that into the grand slams and masters events this year, then they will shoot up the rankings.

The British pair should take care of Yen-Hsun Lu and Janko Tipsarevic in the first round but a tough tie possibly awaits in the second round against Mahesh Bhupathi and Max Mirnyi.  On their day though, Flemski can beat any pair in the word, as shown by their victory over the Bryan brothers at Queens last year.

We also have a few Brits in the Womenís Doubles.  Our highest ranked female doubles specialist Sarah Borwell teams up with Americaís Raquel Kops-Jones, and Elena Baltacha will play with Liga Dekmeikere, of Latvia.

Good to also see Laura Robson in the doubles draw which will be more great experience for her.  She is playing with Australian Sally Peers, and I expect this pairing to have a lot of home support.  Laura was born in Melbourne and won a lot of fans down under at the Hopman Cup.

Expect also to see a few Brits in the Mixed Doubles draw when that is released this week.

World Cup of Tennis

The big pre-Australian Open story last week was the exclusive revealed in The Times by Neil Harman which detailed the plans for the sportís first World Cup.

My initial thoughts are that this is a great idea.  As prestigious as the Davis Cup is, its format is not working in the current calendar with top players such as Roger Federer and Andy Murray already pulling out of the first round of ties in March.

A tournament which would still give players the chance to represent their country, but be done and dusted within ten days is an ideal alternative, and I think it would capture the imagination of sports fans around the world.

Not too sure though about some of the additions such as the substitution rule and the first to five points scoring system in the tie-breaks.  Iím sure the event will be entertaining enough without the need for any of these new novelty additions.

Why not have teams of four competing in best of three match ties over one day which consist of two singles and a doubles match.  Something similar to the format in the Hopman Cup.

Itís a topic which could be discussed for pages but as Iím fast running out of space, letís leave it for another time.

A good week for Eaton in Glasgow

Thoroughly enjoyed the AEGON Pro-Series in Glasgow last week, and I bet Chris Eaton did too.

The 22-year-old got the year off to a fantastic start with victory in the singles and doubles at Scotstoun, and looked in impressive form all week.  If he can continue playing like that for the next few months, then he will quickly rise up the rankings.

The fast courts of Scotstoun suited his serve and volley style, and on his way to the singles title, he only dropped one set all week.  An impressive straight sets win over home favourite Jamie Baker rounded off a fantastic week.

Eaton was equally as impressive in the doubles with Dominic Inglot.  The pair have now won four titles in the five tournaments that they have played with each other since September.  Impressive form for the British pair.

Good to see Baker playing well.  He was the benefactor of a retirement and a withdrawal on his way to the final, but I have no doubt he would have got there anyway, and the ranking points gained will help him achieve his goal of getting closer to the top 100.

Itís a big few weeks for the Scot who is looking to book his place in the Davis Cup squad for the tie away to Lithuania.  He plays in Sheffield this week before heading to America to play in a challenger in Dallas followed by ATP 250 qualifying in San Jose and Delray Beach.

A couple of players who caught my eye for the future in Glasgow were Brit George Morgan and Belgian David Goffin.

16-year-old Morgan picked up his first ranking point with a great straight sets win over world No.338 Matwe Middelkoop in his first round match.  The teenager has a huge serve and a booming forehand, and is definitely one to follow with interest on the futures circuit this year.

19-year-old Goffin caught my eye with his speed around the court and clean hitting.  He isnít the tallest of players but he can fair cover the court.  Look out for him over the next few years.

All in all, another great tournament on our home turf last week!