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By Stuart Fraser

Not a good week for the top players

It was already tough enough for Queens to retain a high profile in the sporting world when the World Cup got underway last week.

Never mind the fact that by Friday evening, the top four showpiece players had been knocked out which left an unexpected semi-final line up.

Let’s take nothing away from the players who did make the last four.  They thoroughly deserved it, and congratulations must go to Sam Querrey who beat his fellow countryman and good friend Mardy Fish in Sunday’s final.

But tournament organisers must have drowned their sorrows with a glass or two of Pimms on Friday night contemplating a weekend without Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray or Andy Roddick.

However, that’s the way tennis goes sometimes.  A knockout draw can sometimes throw up some surprising and sudden exits.  It was just strange that there seemed to be so many of them at Queens.

Nadal came to London last Monday straight from Paris, where he had clinched his fifth French Open crown the day before, looking to match his achievement of two years ago where he won back-to-back titles at Roland Garros and Queens.

It wasn’t to be this year though.  A tough test against Denis Istomin in the third round showed that Nadal wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders and a straight sets defeat to Feliciano Lopez in the quarter-finals proved this to be the case.

It was no surprise to see Nadal pull out of the doubles shortly after his singles defeat due to a strain in his right hamstring.  It’s been a punishing schedule for the Spaniard in recent weeks, and a few days break at home in Majorca should do him the world of good ahead of Wimbledon.

Earlier I said that it was a weekend without Djokovic at Queens.  To be honest, that wasn’t strictly true as after his third round exit at the hands of Xavier Malisse, the Serb went on to win the doubles with Israel’s Jonathan Erlich.

After such an early exit in the singles, the time spent on court for the doubles will have been useful grass court practice for Djokovic with Wimbledon in mind.

Murray came to Queens as defending champion and will be disappointed not to have retained his title after a third round defeat by eventual finalist Fish.  Perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise though as Murraymania will surely not be close to reaching the heights of last year.

Of course there will still be pressure on Murray to win his home slam, but with the added distraction of the World Cup, the media focus will not be as high as usual which could lift a little weight off his shoulders.

Out of all these players, Roddick may be the most concerned going into Wimbledon.  The American hasn’t had much court time since winning in Miami, playing only five matches since the end of March.

The manner of his third-round defeat to Dudi Sela was very disappointing, but the three-time finalist will still be confident of upping his game at the All England Club.  It was only just under 12 months ago that he came very close to winning his first Wimbledon title.

Although these early exits for the top four seeds at Queens were all surprising, they didn’t compare to the shock of Lleyton Hewitt’s win over Roger Federer in the final of the Gerry Weber Open in Halle on Sunday.

Federer looked on course for his 30th straight match win in Halle at a set up.  In fact, he had a 0-40 opportunity on Hewitt’s serve in the ninth game of the second set but failed to take advantage, and that proved to be the turning point in the match with Hewitt going on to take the set in the tie-break.

Hewitt then broke immediately in the first game of the deciding set and held his nerve to serve the rest of the set out, benefiting from a bit of good fortune when he hit a net cord on match point to seal the title.

It was the end of a 15-match losing streak against Federer for Hewitt and sends a big message out ahead of Wimbledon.  Don’t forget, Hewitt only just narrowly lost out in a five set quarter-final match against eventual runner-up Roddick last year.

For Federer, it’s another tight defeat in a tour event which he will surely quickly put behind him.  We all know he saves his A game for the slams.

So it wasn’t the best of weeks for the top players, but they won’t be worrying too much.  It’s a quick transition from clay to grass, and after a few more practice sessions at Aorangi Park, they will be confident of hitting top form at Wimbledon next week.

Britwatch pre-Wimbledon

Britwatch continues this week with one eye on the action at the AEGON International in Eastbourne and the other on the live scores coming from Wimbledon qualifying at Roehampton.

Story of the week is from the South coast of England where James Ward has knocked out two of last week’s Queens semi-finalists to reach the last eight in Eastbourne.

A first-round win over Feliciano Lopez, after the Spaniard strangely retired at a set and 4-5 down, was followed by a straight sets win over former world No.5 Rainer Schuettler.

Ward has impressed this week with his general play and calmness on court.  Surely these results will be enough to clinch him a place in the Davis Cup team at the same venue against Turkey in just over three weeks time.

In fact, British captain Leon Smith’s likely team were on court at the same time in Eastbourne today when Ward & Jamie Baker took on Colin Fleming and Ken Skupski in the doubles quarter-finals.  Flemski continued their run of good form with a straight sets victory.

Despite his good results this week, Ward won’t get a chance to compete at Wimbledon next week as he was forced to choose between a wild card for Eastbourne or Wimbledon qualifying this week.

Thankfully he’s made a good choice as the ranking points gained so far this week will help him push further up the rankings, but wouldn’t it have been ideal if he had been given a wild card for the Wimbledon main draw, allowing him to compete in both.

Instead, the All England Club decided to waste their three remaining wild cards on the next three names on the direct acceptances list.  Jamie Baker was the only Brit to be given a wild card and British tennis is now left with the embarrassing situation of having only two male Brits competing in their home slam after the rest were knocked out of Wimbledon qualifying this week.

In fact, it’s even worse if you’re purely an English tennis fan as for the first time in the history of the tournament, there is no English representative in the men’s draw 

Despite being well within the LTA’s criteria of recommending players within the world’s top 250 for a Wimbledon main draw wild card, the All England Club refused to give one to world No.161 Alex Bogdanovic.

This forced the British No.2 to go through qualifying and no one can accuse him of a lack of effort as he narrowly lost 24-22 in the deciding set of his second round match against former world No.40 Nicolas Mahut.  Dan Evans & Josh Goodall were also knocked out at the same stage.

But why isn’t our home grand slam supporting our own players more?  A quick look at the draws for the last three grand slams in France, Australia and the USA show that at least five of the eight wild cards were awarded to local players.

These slams also have reciprocal agreements in place where they swap a wild card with each other ensuring that one of their country’s players will get an opportunity to experience the main draw of a slam away from home.

Instead, Wimbledon has awarded their wild cards to two Russians, one German, one Japanese and one Brit, with the others just given away to the next three alternates.

But this is the farce called British tennis.  As David Lloyd says in tomorrow’s Daily Mail: “I feel sorry for every single young player in this country and for the British public.  We are a disaster and have been for years.”

Couldn’t agree more.

New British Davis Cup player?

If you haven’t caught him in action already, watch out for a player called Dustin Brown at Wimbledon next week.

The 25-year-old Jamaican is a regular on the challenger circuit and has recently broke the top 100 for the first time, which has clinched him a place in the Wimbledon main draw for the first time.

In what was albeit an exhibition, Brown today beat world No.9 Fernando Verdasco at the Boodles Challenge in Buckinghamshire.  Judging by reports, Brown was on stunning form, particularly on serve, and he clinched the match in the deciding championship tie-break 13-11.

With his dreadlocked hair, he’s quite a character and stories have been heard about him turning up at tennis events across Europe in a Volkswagen camper van in the past.  See, the life of a touring tennis pro is not all glitz and glamour.

In an interview with John Inverdale on the BBC last week, it was revealed that Brown has a British passport which would entitle him to play Davis Cup for us.  Inverdale asked him if he would consider it and Brown didn’t exactly say no.

Brown has played for Jamaica in the competition before, but the last time he played was in 2003.  A fallout with the Jamaican Tennis Federation over financial support appears to be the reason for this.

Brown is currently in better form than any of the other candidates for the British No.2 slot, so if he is indeed willing to play for Britain in future ties, then it’s something the LTA should at least explore.

It could be a good move for Roger Draper and the LTA as they could then claim to have produced another top 100 player.  After recently telling the All-Party Tennis Group that it was perfectly proper to include doubles players when counting how many top 100 players they have, it wouldn’t surprise me.

Muster returns

When former grand slam champion Thomas Muster played his final match as a pro at the 1999 French Open, he said afterwards that he was going on a holiday from tennis.

Now 11 years later, Muster is to return from that “holiday” when he makes a comeback to the tour at a challenger in Germany on June 28.

The former world No.1 and French Open champion has accepted a wild card into the singles and doubles, and is planning to appear in more events on the challenger circuit.

Muster said: “I won't set my goals too high but will just play my best tennis and we'll see where it brings me.”

Sounds like he isn’t just back for a bit of fun and some cash.  Perhaps the clay-court specialist found a weakness in Nadal’s game when they had a hit at the French Open last month?