STUART FRASER

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TALKING BALLS 024 Ė WEDNESDAY 24TH MARCH 2010
By Stuart Fraser

Ljubicic wins in Indian Wells

ďThere were many of us who thought the story was over for the Croatian.  But it looks as though he is just about to write another chapter.Ē

Sky Sports commentator Mark Petchey could not have summed it up any better as Ivan Ljubicic had his first match point against Andy Roddick in the final of the Indian Wells Masters on Sunday.  The Croat did eventually begin that new chapter when he sealed the win on his fourth match point.

It was a remarkable victory for the 31-year-old who became the oldest first-time winner of a Masters event.  Itís even more remarkable when you consider that his run to the title included wins over Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.

Itís a win which will be well received on the tour as all reports point to Ljubicic being a popular figure amongst players after representing them on the ATP Player Council, and in fact he was the first active player to serve on the ATP Board when he was elected as the European Player Representative in August 2008.

However, the Croat resigned his position five months later to concentrate fully on his tennis which was suffering at the time.  Itís taken a good bit of patience as in June last year, he dropped to No.75 in the rankings but his patience has paid off as he now sits at No.13 after his win in Indian Wells.

It was a surprise that concluded a week of shock results in the Califonia desert.  As well as Nadal and Djokovicís defeats at the hands of Ljubicic, Roger Federer suffered a third round exit thanks to Marcos Baghdatis.  With all due respect to the Cypriot though, this is a result that further suggests that Federer leaves his best tennis for the grand slams.

Andy Murray was another of the favourites for the title but really didnít get going until the latter stages in his quarter-final against Robin Soderling who was hitting the ball extremely well.  By then, it was too late and the Swede clinched the match in the second set tie-break.

Despite his defeat, Murray still moves ahead of Nadal in the world rankings this week to No.3 after the Spaniard lost points through failing to defend his title.  Although despite their shock defeats, none of the top four really have to worry about their rankings for now with world No.5 Juan Martin Del Potro and Nikolay Davydenko, ranked No.6, both out through injury.

Talking about rankings, Indian Wells helped provide a new career high for British No.1 female Elena Baltacha who had an excellent run to the third round, which included a hugely impressive win over world No.11 Li Na.

Baltacha was sadly on the end of a 6-0, 6-2 thrashing by former World No.8 Alicia Molik in the third round, but had already done enough to secure a climb to No.62 in the new rankings issued this week.

Now onto Miami

The players now head east to Miami where the Sony Ericsson Open takes place combining an ATP Masters 1000 tournament for the men with a Premier Mandatory event for the women.

Itís great to see plenty of Brits competing this week at such a high level tournament.  Murray plays in the Menís Singles and Ross Hutchins is in the Menís Doubles with Aussie Jordan Kerr.  In the Womenís Singles, Baltacha, Anne Keothavong and Heather Watson compete whilst Sarah Borwell has entered the Doubles with American Raquel Kops-Jones.

Katie OíBrien was nearly another Brit in the main draw of the Womenís Singles but sadly lost her final qualifying match in straight sets to Michaella Krajicek, the younger half-sister of former Wimbledon champion Richard.

Baltacha had no such problem though and came through her two qualifying matches without dropping a set.  The British No.1 is carrying so much momentum at the moment and should be confident ahead of her first round match tonight against world No.59 Iveta Benesova.

Keothavong also continues her comeback from injury with a first round match against Austrian Tamira Paszek who ironically, like Keothavong, has entered courtesy of a protected ranking after suffering a back injury.

17-year-old Watson makes her debut on the main tour thanks to a wildcard from her management company IMG.  They own and run the tournament so were only too happy to give the US Open Junior champion such a huge opportunity.

And the teenager seems to be getting all the luck as she has been given a relatively kind first round draw against qualifier Tsvetana Pironkova, ranked No.117.  With the amount of ranking points on offer for one main draw win alone, itís a great chance for Watson, ranked No.406, to make a massive climb up the rankings.

Murray will also be another Brit with ranking points on his mind as he is the defending champion in Miami.  Anything less than a title win for the Scot will see him drop back below Nadal in the rankings, and even that depends on the Spaniard failing to make it past the quarter-final stage.

And how could I possibly forget one of the most high-profile Brits in Miami this week.  Spice Girl Mel B yesterday teamed up with Novak Djokovic to play a charity doubles match against Ana Ivanovic and singer Jay Sean. 

Judging by the footage I seen though, donít be pinning any hopes on the Spice Girl becoming the next big British tennis hope.

Stepanek & Simon drop to Challenger level

Noticed a very strong field at the Sunrise challenger in Florida last week which included Radek Stepanek and Gilles Simon.

If truth be told, Iím sure that both players would rather still be competing in Indian Wells but early exits in the second round meant that they could fly over to compete in the $125k event in Florida.

It must be one of the strongest Challengers on the circuit.  The last direct acceptance in the 32-man draw was world No.95 Andre Golubev.  Compare that to Jersey this week where the top seed is Jan Hernych, ranked No.147.

The Sunrise Challenger offers a great opportunity for players who suffer early defeats in Indian Wells to get some more match time before they compete just a few miles down the road in Miami the following week.

For players like Stepanek & Simon who are struggling with their form this year, it gives them a chance to get some momentum going again.  The ranking points arenít to be snuffed at either with 125 available for the winner.

Soderling won this event last year after a run of bad form and two months later, he went on to reach the final at Roland Garros, knocking out the king of clay, Nadal, on the way.

Simon will be hoping for something similar, although he didnít quite match Soderlingís efforts from the previous year in Sunrise.  The Frenchman made the final, after winning a tricky first round tie against Richard Gasquet.  Just 12 months ago, that match wouldnít have looked out of place in the latter stages of a grand slam.

Congratulations go to Florian Mayer though who defeated Simon in straight sets in the final.

Jersey Challenger

The Challenger circuit now visits the Channel Island of Jersey this week for the first of the four annual Challenger events that take place in the UK.

As expected, there are plenty of Brits competing this week.  Dan Evans is defending champion in the Menís singles and itís a big tournament for him as his ranking highly depends on the 75 points he earned for winning last year.

Evans though suffered a disastrous 6-2, 6-2 defeat to German Tobias Kamke in the first round yesterday meaning that he will lose these crucial ranking points on the 5th of April.  Expect to see the world No.259 fall around 100 places in the rankings.

It was a bit of a nightmare for the Brits yesterday to be honest with Josh Goodall, Alex Bogdanovic and James Ward all suffering disappointing first round defeats.  Wildcard Dominic Inglot had a good win though against Roko Karanusic and Dan Smethurst also won through to the second round.

Hopefully we can have a bit more success in the doubles with 10 Brits competing.  Ken Skupski teams up with Rohan Bopanna, of India, this week as regular partner Colin Fleming misses out due to a strained ligament in his foot.  We wish you a quick recovery Colin.

Jamie Murray and Jonny Marray also take part and they had a tight win in their first round match last night against Goodall and Aussie Samuel Groth.  The British pair eventually won the champions tiebreak 14-12.

An interesting entrant in Jersey this week is Laurynas Grigelis.  Remember him?  If not, he was the man who clinched victory for Lithuania in the deciding Davis Cup rubber against Great Britain just a few weeks ago.

The 19-year-old is tipped as one to look out for in the future, and he is certainly showing his promise so far this week.  He came through three qualifying matches to secure a place in the main draw.

As well as the Menís Challenger, there is also a $25k Womenís event taking place where seven Brits compete in the main draw of the singles.  Good luck to all.

Live scores can be found at www.lta.org.uk.  Keep an eye out also for Judy Murrayís blog.  Andy and Jamieís Mum is in Jersey this week and, as always, will be providing an interesting insight in the form of a daily blog.

Lloyd ripped to shreds by Hugh MacDonald

Whilst I donít think John Lloyd was to blame for the recent Davis Cup defeat by Lithuania, I was not at all surprised to hear that he had chosen to resign as captain last week.

I was surprised though to read comments from Lloyd at the weekend about Murrayís commitment to the British team.  These comments were unnecessary in my opinion.

Hugh MacDonald, Chief Sportswriter for The Herald, seems to agree with me and wrote a fantastic comment piece in yesterdayís newspaper which is well worth a read folks: http://www.heraldscotland.com/sport/other-sports-news/john-lloyd-trying-to-shift-blame-from-his-various-failures-by-questioning-andy-murray-s-davis-cup-commitment-1.1015279