STUART FRASER

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TALKING BALLS 018 Ė TUESDAY 26TH JANUARY 2010
By Stuart Fraser

Oz Open set for a thrilling finish

Iím jet lagged, and I havenít even left the country.  Thatís what happens when you stay up all night watching the action from Melbourne Park, but itís a small price to pay for the quality of play that has been on show during the first week of this yearís Australian Open.

Thanks to the online Eurosport Player, I have had coverage from seven different courts beamed into my living room through the internet for £3.99.  Again, another small price to pay which means I have not missed any of the action.

Whilst the main TV channels may prefer to focus on the matches on the Rod Laver or Hisense arenas, the Eurosport Player gives you the chance to watch the Ďhidden gemsí as I call them. 

To put a definition to that, I mean the matches on outside courts which may not feature a Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, but has much more action and excitement than the early round beatings normally dished out by the worldís top two.

Leading into the last few days of the first grand slam of the year, the menís draw is set up nicely.  Six of the top eight seeds made the quarter-finals which has thrown up some interesting ties.

We now know that Andy Murray and Marin Cilic will contest the first semi-final on Thursday.  Both put in impressive performances today to set up a rematch of their fourth round encounter at the US Open when the Croat beat the Scot in straight sets.

Something tells me that wonít be the case on Thursday though.  Murray has been in stunning form since the very start of the tournament.  Three comfortable victories set up a test against big-serving John Isner in the fourth round.  It was a test that Murray passed with flying colours, executing his game plan perfectly.

The titanic clash between Murray and Nadal today was one that was too close to call beforehand.  However, two and a half sets of quality tennis were sadly concluded by a Nadal retirement due to more knee problems, and it was quite gutting to see the world No.2 have a sad look on his face as he left the court.

His knee problems have been well documented over the past year, but the signs so far in 2010 were good until we saw him grimace in pain in the second game of the third set.  It remains to be seen how bad the knees are, but I have a feeling that will be the last we see of Nadal until the clay season begins in April.

It slightly took the shine off the Murray victory, but the performance from the Scot up until then was enough to install him as the bookies new favourite for this yearís title.

Itís a grand slam though, and the tough matches keep on coming.  Cilic, I suppose, could be seen as this yearís traditional surprise package at the Australian Open, following in the footsteps of Marcos Baghdatis and Fernando Verdasco in previous years, but in truth, itís no surprise to us regular tennis viewers that the 14th seed has made the latter stages of a grand slam.

Heís had to work hard for his place in the semi-finals though after two consecutive five set victories over Juan Martin Del Potro and Andy Roddick.  In fact, itís not been the easiest route at all for the Croat who has also had to overcome Stanislas Wawrinka, Bernard Tomic and Fabrice Santoro in previous rounds.

Cilic is a dangerous opponent for any player on tour but I think his furthest grand slam run yet will come to an end on Thursday.  Murray is in devastating form and has a favourable 3-1 head to head record against the Croat.  The Scot might drop his first set of the tournament in this one but heíll make it through to his second grand slam final.

The semi-final line-up on the other side of the draw has yet to be decided.  In two tasty quarter-final matchers tomorrow, Federer plays Nikolay Davydenko followed by Novak Djokovic against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

Federer has looked to be in great form, only dropping one set so far in that first-round match with Igor Andreev.  Solid performances have followed against Victor Hanescu, Albert Montanes and Lleyton Hewitt.

Prince William even popped by to watch the Swiss in action last Thursday in his second-round match against Hanescu.  It was a nice moment when HRH walked into the Rod Laver Arena midway through the third set and received a warm welcome from the crowd.

Davydenko will provide a tough test for Federer though.  Apart from his tight five-set win over Verdasco in which he appeared nervous in closing out the match, his matches so far have been relatively easy with the loss of only seventeen games in nine sets.

The Russian doesnít exactly have a great head to head record against Federer, at 2-12 down, but crucially he has won the last two meetings at the ATP World Tour Finals in November and at the Qatar Open just over two weeks ago, both played on hard courts.

However, a grand slam is a different kettle of fish, and Iím not sure Davydenko can beat Federer over the course of a five set match.  He got tight against Verdasco, and with the chance to equal his best performance at a grand slam, I think he might be the same tomorrow.

In a rematch of the 2008 final, Djokovic will take on Tsonga in what should be a cracking match.  Iím sticking with the Serb as my pick for the title, although Murrayís performances have made me reconsider that on several occasions over the past week.

Djokovic however has gone about his business quietly and efficiently.  Tsonga will provide him with his first tough match of the tournament and may even have the crowd on his side, but Djokovic is a class act at his best.

Will Henin complete the dream comeback?

It must be tough for the womenís game to compete alongside the men at a grand slam these days with the depth of quality on offer on the ATP tour these days.  Therefore, the WTA must be absolutely delighted that Justine Henin has returned and is getting ever closer to completing the dream comeback on Saturday.

The Belgian has been in some tough situations over the past week, but her grit and determination has seen her through.  It was a shame that Henin and fifth seed Elena Dementieva had to meet so early in the second round, but nonetheless it was a stunning match which Henin just edged.

At a set and a break down against Alisa Kleybanova in the third round, it looked as if the Dementieva match had taken a lot out of Henin, but again, the seven-time grand slam champion dug deep and came back to win the match.

Excellent victories against Yanina Wickmayer and Nadia Petrova followed, and it has set up a semi-final against the only unseeded player left, Jie Zheng, of China.  Zheng has done well to reach the semis but Henin is a different proposition to all the other opponents she has faced so far.

Serena and Venus Williams should set up a semi-final against each other tomorrow with respective wins over Victoria Azarenka and Na Li in the quarter-finals.  Itís always a box office encounter when the Williams sisters face each other on court.

Serena has the edge over her older sister with victories in their last four encounters, and I canít see it being any different if they play each other in Melbourne.

So, in essence, I suppose I am predicting a Serena and Henin final.  Iím going to stick to my guns with last weekís pick of Serena for the title, but whichever way it goes, the match-up between the current and former world No.1 would be an ideal conclusion to a fascinating womenís draw.  Itís what the WTA have needed!

Tomic is one for the future

Tennis in Australia finds itself in a similar situation to what Tennis in Britain found itself in a few years ago.

Henman was coming towards the end of his career and we were wondering if there was anyone ready to step up to the plate and take over the mantle so to speak.  Thankfully, Murray came along in the summer of 2005 and the rest is history.

Now, Hewitt is in the twilight years of his career and those down under are hoping someone can follow in his footsteps.  The country has a great tradition of producing top players, with the name of Rod Laver instantly springing to mind of course.

How ironic is it then that the boy who Australians are pinning their hopes on bears an uncanny resemblance on court to Murray?  17-year-old Bernard Tomic may have bowed out in the second round to Cilic, but his performance showed that he belongs on the world stage.

I remember first seeing Tomic in action at the Australian Open last year on the Margaret Court Arena.  As always, there was a great atmosphere on the third biggest court at Melbourne Park, and it spurred the Aussie on to a four set victory over Italian Potito Starace.

Two things struck me about Tomic that day which reminded me of Murray.  One, the way he stood tall in hitting a double handed backhand, which perhaps didnít have a lot of pace, but was always placed in the right spot on court.

Two, the way he effortlessly moved around court with the unique sense of knowing where the ball was going at all times.  It struck me so much that I have followed his career with interest ever since.

In his epic five-set second round match at this yearís tournament, he didnít take advantage of the chances he had to lead 5-3 in the deciding set, and for that, Iím sure he is kicking himself.

It was probably that frustration which was behind his criticism of the scheduling which saw him conclude a three hour and 48 minute match at 2am in the morning.  The Aussie labelled it ridiculous that someone of his age was playing so late.

However, these are the things you have to accept if you are in the main senior draw at a grand slam, regardless of your age.  To criticise tournament organisers when you were the beneficiary of a wild card is also none too wise. 

But, heís still young and Iím sure he will learn, if he hasnít already, that that was a mistake.  Itís something that he will put in the past and move on from.

Rumour has it that Darren Cahill and Brad Gilbert have been approached by Tomicís dad to take charge of the next step in the teenagerís development.  Big names indeed, but no surprise with the talent he has already displayed at such a young age.

Fancy playing in the US Open?

At grand slam tournaments, generally the only way to participate is to get in via your world ranking, which will either place you in the main draw or qualifying, or a wild card, which normally only go to players with a world ranking.

Not at this yearís US Open though.  The United States Tennis Association (USTA) have just announced the launch of National Playoffs, which will give all players of 14 years of age and older the chance to play at Flushing Meadows this year against the worldís best.

Sectional qualifying tournaments will be held all over the USA with the champions from each of these advancing to the National Playoffs, where one man and one woman will win a wild card for US Open qualifying.

A great idea which will encourage tennis players, of any standard, all over the country to compete with the goal of a place at the US Open in their sights.  The only requirement is that you have a current USTA membership, and that you stump up a $125 entry fee.

If youíre in America, why not give it a shot.  It really could make a dream come true!