STUART FRASER

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TALKING BALLS 022 Ė TUESDAY 2ND MARCH 2010
By Stuart Fraser

Tough Davis Cup test for Brits in Lithuania

Itís almost a venture into the unknown.  Granted, we know a bit more about Lithuania than we did when Great Britain were drawn against them back in September, but who knows what is going to happen in Vilnius this weekend?

Itís our first tie in the Davis Cupís Europe/Africa Group Two, the third tier of the competition, and one that we should be overwhelming favourites to win, considering we were in the top World Group just two years ago.

However, Andy Murrayís absence changes the whole complexion of this tie.  The world No.4 is quite rightly giving this a miss as he has a big few weeks ahead with a substantial number of ranking points to defend in Indian Wells and Miami.

In fact, Murray isnít the only big name missing from the Davis Cup this weekend.  Only half of the worldís top ten are competing for their countries which is a sad indication of the state of the competition in its present-day format.  Something needs to change but that discussion is for another time.

Back to the capital of Lithuania where John Lloydís inexperienced side hope to start carving out a path for Britain back up the groups.  A nation like ours whose tennis organisation receives around £25m a year, plus sponsorship, should at least be regularly competing against the top nations in the World Group.

But for now, we have to make do with unattractive ties like this.  In fact, so unattractive that the BBC wonít be showing live coverage on television and the latest news courtesy of Jonathan Overend on Twitter (@5livetennis) is that: ďAt the last count, only 3 British tennis correspondents are on the plane to Vilnius. A depressing indicator of our slump.Ē

The last line in Jonathanís tweet sums it up perfectly.  Understandably, sports editors are telling tennis journalists not to bother travelling.  What appeal to Joe Bloggs on the street is there in a tie where our highest ranked player is James Ward at No.250?  That may sound harsh but itís reality. 

Hopefully though, without the severe media spotlight on our lower-ranked players, like it unfairly is at Wimbledon every year, the Brits can pull off a victory in Vilnius this weekend.  The team doesnít have much Davis Cup experience but this is the ideal tie for them to gain some confidence with a win or two in their rubbers.

The team of four consists of Ward, Dan Evans, Colin Fleming and Ken Skupski.  Jamie Baker and Ross Hutchins also travel as squad members, and donít be surprised to see the former on court this weekend, despite not being selected in the team named by the Captain last week.

Lloyd had until last Tuesday to name a team so the thought is that he named his singles players in order of ranking.  He is allowed to change this up to an hour before, and I wouldnít be surprised if Baker gets the nod from Lloyd if he is hitting the ball well in practice.

In fact, Hutchins has even given Lloyd something extra to think about with his fine run to the final in Memphis with Aussie Jordan Kerr a fortnight ago.  However, Fleming and Skupski are expected to be fielded in the doubles rubber after their astonishing rise up the rankings over the past year and a half.

This is a rubber I would put my mortgage on us winning.  Whoever Lithuania decide to field for the doubles does not concern me at all.  They only have two players world ranked in doubles with Laurynas Grigelis at No.907 and Ricardas Berankis at No.1572.

Berankis is a totally different proposition though when it comes to the singles.  The 19-year-old currently sits at a career high ranking of No.198 and is in impressive form coming into this tie after reaching the quarter-finals of the San Jose ATP 250 event a fortnight ago.

Itís in stark contrast to the form currently being experienced by our singles players.  Ward and Evans both lost first-round matches at Futures events in France last month to players ranked well below them whilst Baker failed to qualify for the main draw at the two ATP 250 tournaments and one Challenger event he played in last month.

With the home crowd behind him, Berankis will be clear favourite for the two singles rubbers he plays in.  This makes the other two rubbers against world No.521 Grigelis crucial.  These are winnable matches and if Britain are to have a chance of winning this tie, then they really are must-win.

But as we know in Davis Cup, you canít always go by ranking.  Look at our tie against Poland last year when the then world No.302 Evans lost to Michal Przysiezny, ranked No.678, in the deciding rubber.

Itís a shame that us tennis enthusiasts here in Britain wonít be able to watch the action this weekend.  Reports via the internet will have to do.  Good luck GB!

Gulbis returns to form

Lithuaniaís neighbour Latvia are also in Davis Cup action this weekend away to Ukraine, but unfortunately for them will be minus their No.1 Ernests Gulbis who appears to have re-discovered a bit of form after winning his first ATP World Tour title in Delray Beach last week.

The 21-year-old was tipped as one to look out for the future back in 2008 when he reached a career high ranking of No.38 after posting some impressive results including a run to the quarter-finals at Roland Garros.

However, he lost his way a bit last year where out of the 29 tournaments he played in, he only managed to win more than one match in two of them.  First-round and second-round exits were becoming the norm for the young Latvian and as a result, he ended the year with a world ranking of No.90.

Gulbisí commitment was questioned amidst rumours that he travelled to tournaments in his fatherís private jet.  However, appointing former Argentinian professional Hernan Gumy appears to have helped him find his way on tour again.

The past two weeks have been extremely successful for Gulbis with a semi-final appearance in Memphis two weeks ago followed by victory in the final in Delray Beach on Sunday against big-serving Ivo Karlovic.  Never the easiest of opponents but Gulbis made light work of him, breaking serve four times to win 6-2, 6-3 in 80 minutes.

All good signs for Gulbis who has the physique and technique to go far in the sport.

A young Scot to look out for

British journalists are always desperate to find a young player who has a chance of going on to greater things in the sport.  You will often find this sort of story in your local paper with the headline: ď[INSERT NAME HERE] is the next Andy Murray.Ē

Thereís a chance you might see the name Maia Lumsden as a part of that headline sometime soon after the 11-year-old won the prestigious Tennis Europe 12U Super title in Auray, France at the weekend.  She joins an illustrious list of previous winners including Murray, Rafael Nadal, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin.

It was an impressive week for the girl from Glasgow who didnít drop a set all week.  Even more impressive though is the manner of her 6-2, 6-2 victory in the final which was played in front of a capacity 1000 strong crowd.

Excellent stuff from the young Scot who now plans to return to France in the coming weeks to challenge herself in a higher age group in 14U events.  It will be interesting to see how she does.

No boredom for Nadal

It appears that Nadal hasnít been suffering from boredom during his injury lay-off.  Unable to compete on court due to a knee injury, the Spaniard has been keeping busy by shooting a music video with Shakira in Barcelona last month for her latest single entitled Gypsy.

The interesting scenes in the video have sparked all sorts of rumours that the pair are dating but spokespeople for both Nadal and Shakira have been quick to deny that there is anything going on between them.

For those of you interested in when Nadal is returning to the court, the good news is that he has been practicing for the past fortnight and is expected to play in Indian Wells next week.

And for those of you interested in seeing the music video, head to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BdhaZMTTh7U.