STUART FRASER

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TALKING BALLS 036 Ė TUESDAY 11TH JANUARY 2011
By Stuart Fraser

First week form

Itís early days yet but itís always interesting to look at the results in the first week of a new season in an attempt to gauge the form book ahead of the Australian Open.  Some have to be taken with a pinch of salt but itís always worth a look nonetheless.

Once again the Qatar Open was the tournament which could boast the inclusion of the top two players in the world and organisers would have no doubt been crossing their fingers for a Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal final.

It wasnít to be though with the Spaniard bowing out at the semi-final stage to Nikolay Davydenko.  In truth though, Nadal didnít look himself on court all week and it was no surprise to hear that he had been struggling with a virus.

Considering that, it was also not a surprise to see Davydenko demolish him in straight sets so comfortably.  Not including the final, the Russian didnít drop a set all week and as a result of his semi-final win, his head-to-head record against the Spaniard increased to 6-4.  Impressive.

Just hours later though, Nadal was back on court to win the doubles title with compatriot Marc Lopez.  The Spanish pair are a handy partnership and the title will give Nadal some form of consolation after a disappointing week on the singles court.

Donít count him out by any means though.  Once he gets over the virus, gets a few practice sessions in at Melbourne Park and adjusts to the conditions in Australia, he will be back in form.  You can just about always count on a top player like Nadal stepping it up in time for a grand slam.

Whilst the Spaniard didnít make the showpiece match in Doha, Roger Federer didnít have any problem, not dropping a set on his way to the title.  There were a few tight tiebreak sets here and there during the week, but it was an impressive straight sets win over Davydenko which clinched him the unique golden eagle trophy.

His performance has seen him rise to joint favourite with the bookies, along with Nadal, to win the title in Melbourne, and with doubts lingering over Nadalís health, he will surely be outright favourite when the tournament gets underway.

His performance in London at the end-of-season ATP World Tour Finals in November was outstanding and after clinching his 67th career title last week, itís hard to make a case for him not retaining the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup in Melbourne.

But he certainly isnít as dominant as he once was and in recent years, we have seen him become tight in the latter stages of grand slams.  The air of invincibility surrounding him has gone.  Will his chances of equalling Jimmy Connorís record of 27 consecutive grand slam quarter-final appearances also disappear in Melbourne?

The next two best players in the world, according to the rankings, decided to kick their season off in Perth at the Hopman Cup and whilst Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray both won all of their singles matches, it was contrasting fortunes for the countries they were representing.

The Serbian pair of Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic had an impressive run to the final, but sadly had to withdraw after the latter suffered a stomach injury.  It was a shame for the pair and the many Serbs in attendance as they would have been hoping to add the Hopman Cup to the Davis Cup which Serbiaís men won last month.

All in all though, Djokovic will be happy with his week in Perth.  After dropping the opening set against Andrey Golubev in his opening match, the Serb didnít lose a set after that and looked in solid form by the end of the week.

It was the same story for Murray with the Scot winning all of his singles matches comfortably, although Nicholas Mahut did push him to two tiebreak sets.  There was no return to the final this year though for the British pair of Murray and Laura Robson as the latter didnít win any of her three singles matches, and the pair failed to pick up a win in the mixed doubles.

For Murray though, itís all about the singles practice ahead of Melbourne and he looked in top form in his final match against John Isner.

Elsewhere, Robin Soderling won the Brisbane International which moved him up to fourth in the world rankings and demoted Murray to a seeding of fifth for the Australian Open.  Itís a slight blow for the Scot, but bear in mind that he reached the final from the exact same seeding last year.

Over in India, Stanislas Wawrinka won the Chennai Open.  A good win for the Swiss, but I was more impressed by the run of Xavier Malisse to the final.  The former Wimbledon semi-finalist in 2002 could well be a dangerous floater in Melbourne.

Qualifying whets the appetite

For the dedicated tennis fans amongst us, keeping an eye on grand slam qualifying is always an excellent warm-up for the main event.

The draw for the Menís qualifying singles was released this morning and upon first inspection, it truly hit home how poor the current state of British menís tennis is.

When I was at Melbourne Park in 2008 and 2009, there were plenty of British men to follow in qualifying including Alex Bogdanovic, Josh Goodall and Alex Slabinsky.  Now, James Ward is our only man who made the cut.

Itís a sorry state of affairs but at least we still have one player to keep an eye on.  Ward will take on Paul Capdeville who he will fancy his chances against.  Although the Chilean is ranked just over 30 places higher than Ward, he is predominantly a clay court specialist who does not gain too many wins on hard courts.

Also in Wardís section are Frenchmen Edouard Roger-Vasselin and Josselin Ouanna.  Itís certainly one of the more favourable areas of the draw that the Brit could have hoped for.

Other players of note to keep an eye on include third seed Grigor Dimitrov.  Much is expected of the young Bulgarian, but he is in a challenging section which includes Stefan Koubek and Thomas Schoorel.

Mahut is not expected to make it through qualifying according to his seeding of 18th, but realistically will fancy his chances.  Also Irishman Conor Niland will be looking to go one step better than last year and make it past the final qualifying round.

The Womenís draw is not released until tomorrow.  It will include the British trio of Anne Keothavong, Katie OíBrien and Heather Watson, and it will be intriguing to follow the progress of the latter after her run to the quarter-finals in Auckland last week.

Australian Open organisers continue to impress after announcing that some of the qualifying matches will be broadcast live on their website.  A great idea which adds another line to the list of reasons why the Australian Open is my favourite of the four slams.

Back to Scotstoun once again

It was only just over two months ago that Glasgow played host to the AEGON Pro-Series.  In fact it just feels like yesterday, but this week the players return for the first of two Futures events which will take place this year at the Scotstoun Leisure Centre.

And the good news for the local Scottish fans is that there is some home interest to follow.  Scottish No.2 Jamie Baker returns to open up his 2011 campaign and he will be joined by 16-year-old Emma Devine.

There are even some players who have decided to skip Melbourne for Glasgow this week.  The cut for Australian Open menís qualifying was around the 290 mark, yet world No.223 Uladzimir Ignatik and Alexandre Sidorenko, ranked 284, have opted for Scotland instead.

There are plenty of British players to follow with Dan Evans and Chris Eaton returning, and they will be joined by 17-year-old Liam Broady who won the Boysí Doubles at Wimbledon last year.

The Womenís entry list is not as strong compared to last October as this is only a $10k event, but itís still well worth a watch, especially if you want to see a young Scottish tennis star in action in Devine who has a wild card for the main draw..

Joanna Henderson, also 16, fell one win short of joining her when she lost her final qualifying match to Jessica Ren this morning.

So if you have a bit of spare time this week and fancy watching some live tennis to set you up for the Australian Open, get down to Scotstoun where itís free entry.

For those who canít make it, there will be plenty of updates including pictures and videos on my Twitter page at http://www.twitter.com/stu_fraser