STUART FRASER

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TALKING BALLS 035 Ė TUESDAY 4TH JANUARY 2011
By Stuart Fraser

All roads lead to Melbourne

Here we are once again.  The start of a new year in tennis after what seems like a non-existent off-season.  Such a short break may take its toll on the players but for us the fans, the less time without tennis to watch, the better.

There is just under a fortnight till the start of the Australian Open and it is intriguing to take a look at the different routes to Melbourne that the players take in the first couple of weeks of the season.

Some start off in the Middle East.  Both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer kicked off their season at the Abu Dhabi World Tennis Championship last week.  Itís a glorified title for an event which is no more than an exhibition, but the tournament directors must be commended for attracting two of the greatest players of all time.

Yes, money talks, but that wonít be the only reason that Nadal and Federer will have travelled to the UAE as surely their coffers are in no immediate need of a boost.  They obviously both feel itís an ideal way to start a new season.

The two players didnít take their foot off the gas and competed in a keenly contested final which Nadal won in two tiebreak sets.  Not a victory that will be remembered in future years but still a good message for Nadal to send out at this early stage of the year.

Both players have travelled the 185 miles across the Persian Gulf to Doha for the Qatar Open, one of three events which kick off the ATPís 2011 calendar.  With Nadal as the No.1 seed and Federer seeded two, both will be heavily expected to play each other again in Saturdayís final before flying to Australia.

Nadal is also playing doubles in Doha with compatriot Marc Lopez.  The pair have achieved some success in the past with titles in Indian Wells last year and in Doha in 2009, and given the Spaniardís competitive nature, donít expect him to take it easy on the doubles court this week.

Some players have opted to start their season a little closer to Australia at the Chennai Open in India.  World No.6 Tomas Berdych is the top seed and he is joined by Stanislas Wawrinka, Richard Gasquet and Janko Tipsarevic amongst others.

Marin Cilic was looking to become the first man to win three successive Chennai Open titles but was knocked out in the first round by Kei Nishikori in three sets. 

The Croat had a disappointing second half of 2010 after starting the year so promisingly in Melbourne and this early exit in Chennai will not help his confidence heading into the Australian Open where he will have 720 ranking points to defend.

Whilst those players mentioned already have yet to arrive in Australia, a fair few are already down under where there are two options on either side of the country.

On the east coast, three top ten players in Robin Soderling, Andy Roddick and Fernando Verdasco opted for the Brisbane International.  The event boasts a fairly strong field and sees the return of Radek Stepanek who seems to enjoy the courts of the Gold Coast city having won the event in 2009 and finishing as runner-up last year.

Whilst over on the west coast in Perth, apparently the worldís most remotest city, the Hopman Cup takes place which sees eight countries, each fielding one man and one woman, competing in a mixed team event.

Although itís an exhibition event which offers no ranking points, itís always an intriguing competition offering players the rare chance to play mixed doubles as well as singles.  With the round-robin format of two groups, each player is guaranteed at least six matches, three singles and three doubles, in total.

Andy Murray and Laura Robson return once again to team up for Great Britain.  The pair will be looking to go one better having lost out in the final to Spain last year.

It was a week which set Murray up for a run to the Australian Open final and in his press conference earlier this week, this seemed to be given as the main reason why he had returned to Perth rather than taking the route through the Middle East which hadnít really prepared him well for Melbourne in the past.

Other players competing at the Hopman Cup this week include Novak Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic for Serbia, Ruben Bemelmans and Justin Henin of Belgium and the local favourites, Lleyton Hewitt and Alicia Molik representing Australia.

History tells us that there is no definitive path to glory in Melbourne.  Each different route has its pros and cons and each player will have differing views on what is best.  However, this early part of the season offers us a chance to see who is hot and who is not ahead of what should be a fascinating first slam of the season.

Up and comers for 2011

Itís always customary to make predictions at the start of a new tennis season.  Who will win the slams?  Who will finish as the end of year No.1?  Will it be Murrayís year?

An interesting question for me always is who will push on in the coming year and rise towards the top of the game.  There is always a surprise package or two that come out of nowhere, but certainly in recent years there hasnít been too many with the average age of the top 100 appearing to rise considerably over the last decade.

However there are a few young players showing promise and although Iím not too sure when they will make their big breakthrough, Iím confident that some of the following names will make progress this year and push their names closer to the regular winners circle.

Since impressively winning his first ATP title in Delray Beach in February 2008, beating James Blake in a three set final, Kei Nishikori of Japan has been widely tipped as one to watch.

But since reaching a career high ranking of No.56 in February 2009, Nishikori suffered problems with a right elbow injury and struggled to find his form again when he came back.

An impressive second round win over Cilic at the 2010 US Open showed again what he is capable of and Brad Gilbert must share the enthusiasm for the 21-year-old as the former coach of Murray, Roddick and Andre Agassi will be working with Nishikori this year.

And it seems to have had an immediate impact with Nishikori posting an impressive win over defending champion Cilic at the Chennai Open this week.  Expect to see him push on from his current ranking of No.98.

Grigor Dimitrov is another player of whom there has been a lot of talk about in recent years.  The hype of comparing the 19-year-old to a young Federer may not exactly have been helpful for him, but there is understandably a lot of excitement about what this young player could achieve.

Dimitrov replaced previous coach Peter Lundgren with Australian Peter McNamara in June last year and it seemed to have a positive effect with the Bulgarian winning a number of Challenger and Futures titles.

A sour note was the incident in which Dimitrov pushed a chair umpire after a semi-final loss at a Challenger in Helsinki in November.  He was fined and will hopefully learn from that and put it behind him.  He currently sits at No.106 in the world rankings and it is surely just a matter of weeks before he enters the top 100 for the first time.

20-year-old Ricardas Berankis was the man who beat Dimitrov in that infamous match in Helsinki and Berankis himself is another player to keep an eye on.

The Lithuanian has been consistently rising up the singles rankings for a number of years, but since he played his part in his countryís victory over Great Britain in the Davis Cup last March, he has risen over 100 places to a current world ranking of No.87.

Itís enough to see him clinch a place in the main draw of the Australian Open and he seems to be shaping up well for it having won his first round match against Arnaud Clement at the Brisbane International after coming through qualifying.

Watch out too for David Goffin from Belgium.  I first seen him play at the Futures in Glasgow this time last year and was very impressed with his extraordinary pace around the court. 

Since then, I have kept a keen eye on his progress and this week he won his first ATP World Tour match beating home favourite Somdev Devvarman at the Chennai Open in the first round having come through qualifying.

He maybe still needs to grow a bit physically, but at the age of 20 he still has plenty of time for that and at least for now his ranking is heading in the right direction.

British women off to a flyer

There certainly seems to be more British hope for the future in womenís tennis than menís tennis and the first few days of the season has shown why.

Whilst James Ward went out of the first round of qualifying in Doha to Mikhail Ledovskikh, an opponent ranked approximately 175 places below him, there has been plenty of good news to welcome from Auckland where three British women have been competing this week in the $220k ASB Classic.

Heather Watson and Robson are considered as the two big prospects for British womenís tennis and the former showed why with three consecutive wins over higher ranked opponents in qualifying to clinch a place in the main draw.

After two solid straight set wins, Katie OíBrien sadly lost out in the final round of qualifying to Noppawan Lertcheewakarn but Watson gained revenge for the Brits by beating the Thai player 6-1, 6-1 in her first round match.

Itís an impressive start to the year for the 18-year-old from Guernsey who will face a tough test in the second round against the No.9 seed Carla Suarez Navarro.  More great experience though for the young Brit.

Anne Keothavong was a direct entrant into the main draw and won her first round match against Edina Gallovits.  Next up is Ukranian Kateryna Bondarenko.

It was a tough time for Keothavong last year who broke into tears and questioned her future in the game after a first round loss at the US Open.  It is so important for her to get 2011 off to a good start to boost the confidence and her first round win in Auckland will have helped that.

New season, new partners

The start of the season always brings new doubles partnerships and from a British point of view, itís all change amongst our top doubles specialists.

All four of our top doubles players who are ranked in the top 100 chose to start the season in Chennai.  After the split of the infamous Flemski, Colin Fleming will play with Ross Hutchins this year and they are fourth seeds this week, opening up their campaign tomorrow against the Ratiwatanas.

Fleming and Hutchins is a partnership which will likely be the doubles team that will represent Great Britain against Tunisia in the Davis Cup in March. 

However, that depends on form and with Ken Skupski and Jamie Murray both sitting in the top 100 just now, some good results for them coupled with some bad results for Fleming and Hutchins could present a tough decision for captain Leon Smith.

Skupski and Murray actually faced each other in Chennai this week with the former winning the match comfortably with new partner Philipp Marx from Germany. 

Murray had teamed up with Xavier Malisse but the pair never really got going.  Next week, Murray pairs up with Santiago Gonzalez in Auckland and it certainly appears at the moment that the Scot hasnít secured a permanent partner for this year as yet.

Talking about temporary partnerships, donít be too surprised if we see Nadal and Federer teaming up on the doubles court this year at an ATP event for a one-off partnership.  It has been talked about in the past and I can see it happening at some point in the near future.

We seen Nadal and Djokovic pair up in Toronto last year for a bit of fun, and with the friendship appearing to grow even more between Nadal and Federer at last monthís exhibition matches in Zurich and Madrid, the prospect of the worldís top two players forming a dream team does not seem all that unlikely.