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By Stuart Fraser

Aussie Open is underway

The first grand slam of the year is underway and it has been a great first few days.  But are we any better placed to predict this year’s winners?  To be honest, I’m not sure we are.

In the men’s draw, Bet365 have Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal as joint favourites.  Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are 7/1 and 8/1 respectively.  Robin Soderling is next at 16/1 with the rest priced at 40/1 upwards.

It’s an analysis I agree with.  The big four are always going to be the ones with the best chance at the grand slams.  Soderling has shown in recent years that he has the potential to win a slam.  Meanwhile, the rest will struggle to break through the dominance of the top players already mentioned.

It’s just picking an outright winner that is the issue.

Defending champion Federer got off to a comfortable start in the first round against Lukas Lacko, but was pushed all the way before eventually coming through a five set second round classic with Gilles Simon.

The Swiss has always had problems against Simon, having lost to him on both previous occasions they had met each other, but it was still a surprise to see him lose the two set advantage that he had easily earned in just over an hour.

Federer certainly isn’t in an easy section of the draw with the in-form Belgian Xavier Malisse next up in the third round.  After a fourth round tie against either Tommy Robredo or Sergiy Stakhovsky, he could possibly face any of Andy Roddick, Stanislas Wawrinka or Gael Monfils in the quarter-finals.

However, whilst Federer may be severely tested in all these matches, you have to back him every time.  A semi-final line up without him would be very surprising.

Nadal didn’t lose a game in his first round match against Marcos Daniel, albeit his opponent was forced to retire through injury at a set and 5-0 down.  Compared to Federer, Nadal has a more comfortable route through the draw.

The Spaniard is of course going for the so-called ‘Rafa Slam’ but it will be difficult to judge his chances of achieving that until we see him in action on a couple more occasions.

Murray is his potential semi-final opponent and the Scot looked comfortable in his first round win over Karol Beck.  Having previously seen his second round opponent Ilya Marchenko in action at Braehead for Ukraine in the Davis Cup and at the ATP 250 event in Atlanta last year, I can see him making too many errors against such a steady player like Murray.

Murray’s potential route to glory becomes interesting from the fourth round onwards with possible meetings against Juan Martin Del Potro, Soderling, Nadal then Federer.  Not easy but on his day, Murray can beat all of them.

The question is whether he can do it consecutively to lift his first grand slam title.

Djokovic returns to the scene of his first grand slam triumph in 2008 looking to win his second slam title.  Despite dropping a set to Ivan Dodig in the second round, he has easily won every other set he has played and looks in good form.

But can he cope down under when the heat is on?  The Serb has struggled with heat exhaustion in the past, most famously retiring from his 2009 Australian Open quarter-final against Roddick.

Already we have had a few classics this week.  As well as Federer vs Simon, David Nalbandian’s five set first round win over local hope Lleyton Hewitt was an epic, whilst Fernando Verdasco’s comeback from two sets down against Janko Tipsarevic was impressive.

But although the performances of Nalbandian and Verdasco will be remembered more than others, it is highly unlikely that these two will have any hope of reaching the semi-finals with the big four standing in their way.

It’s also difficult to pick a winner in the women’s draw which is probably even more open than the Men’s Singles due to the absence of Serena Williams.  Caroline Wozniacki, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters have all looked impressive whilst Venus Williams, Sam Stosur and Vera Zvonareva will also fancy their chances.

After all that analysis, it may be simple to predict who will make it through to the latter stages, but as for picking an outright winner, well it’s case of pinning the tail on the donkey.

It would be a kop-out not to though.  So here you are – Federer to win the men’s title and Clijsters to win her first Australian Open.  Can you tell I didn’t write that with confidence?

Another Scot in action in Oz

Andy Murray got through his first round match with no problem; Elena Baltacha exited the second round after a defeat by Henin whilst Colin Fleming and Jamie Murray get their respective doubles campaigns underway tonight.  There is certainly no shortage of Scots to follow at this year’s Australian Open.

But keep an eye open for yet another Scot in action at Melbourne Park.  27-year-old Lucy Grant is an umpire from Grantown on Spey, in the Highlands, and has returned to Australia this week for the eighth time to take charge of some top matches.

However this year Lucy returns with a spring in her step having being promoted to a Silver Badge Chair Umpire by the International Tennis Federation last month.  This status means that she is qualified to umpire any match in the world, apart from a Grand Slam singles final or a Davis Cup Final.

Not bad for a 27-year-old.

Achieving the Silver Badge was a massive achievement for Lucy and it was something that she was very proud of when I spoke to her last week.  She said: “It was so satisfying to attain the Silver Badge.

“After working towards something like this for so many years, it was an amazing feeling being awarded it.  All the hard work had paid off and it means I will always now be a chair umpire as opposed to being on the lines.”

Lucy’s officiating career began when as a young player aged 16, the LTA approached her and fellow Scottish competitors asking them if they would like to try and be an official.

Lucy never looked back, going on to work at Wimbledon just a year later and she now travels across the world officiating matches on the WTA tour and at Grand Slams.  But there is one infamous match that sticks out in her mind – the epic Great Britain Davis Cup play-off match between Chris Eaton and James Ward in February 2009.

She said: “We were playing best of five sets and the score reached 21-19 in the decider.  The match lasted six hours and 40 minutes in total and I only had one line umpire.  I was exhausted and by the end of the match, I was running on pure adrenaline.  I loved every moment of it.”

Lucy has returned to Melbourne this week for a tournament which she loves and she hopes it will mark the start of a year which will help take her closer to her future ambitions.

She said: ““I love coming to the Australian Open as the people are so friendly and I feel at home.  The weather is of course usually better than at home and Melbourne itself is a really chilled out and cool city to spend time in.

“This year I will aim to do higher level matches on bigger courts and work on getting used to the crowds and the pressures that come from them.  Who knows what the future will hold, but I hope to continue umpiring for some years to come and I hope to be selected for the London Olympics in 2012.”

All the best to Lucy for the future.  Scottish tennis is on a high with four competitors taking part in this year’s Australian Open and although Lucy is not involved in the playing side, it’s great to have another Scot involved in tennis on the world stage.

No British singles success at Scotstoun

It was a disappointing few days in terms of British results in Glasgow for the first of the 2011 AEGON Pro-Series Futures events last week.

Three Brits in Jamie Baker, Chris Eaton and Dan Evans made the quarter-finals of the Men’s Singles, but as one member of the forum said, it turned out to be ‘Terrible Thursday’ with all three being knocked out one after the other on the show court at Scotstoun.

According to the seedings, this was meant to happen, but Baker and Evans in particular will be disappointed at the missed chances in their three-set defeats.  Both will have come off court feeling they could have won their matches.

Local favourite Baker was well supported by his home crowd but it was sadly to no avail.  He later revealed he had been suffering from a pulled stomach muscle and that he had chosen to withdraw from a Futures in Turkey this week.

Baker played a massive part in Great Britain’s 5-0 Davis Cup whitewash against Turkey last year, and with a tie against Tunisia at the Bolton Arena coming up in early March, the Scot does not want to take any risks which may jeopardise his chances of playing.

For Evans and Eaton, the losses in Glasgow, coupled with early defeats in Sheffield this week, will see them drop further down the world rankings.  Not good news for British men’s tennis at a time when we have only three players within the top 300.

Tennis at Glasgow 2014

Whilst reading Tennis Scotland’s annual report for 2010 last week, I noticed an interesting comment in Chief Executive David Marshall’s opening statement regarding tennis in the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

It read: “While tennis is not one of the allotted sports for Glasgow in four years time, as a governing body we are continuing to do everything we possibly can to change that situation.”

A statement which surprised me as I thought there was no chance of this happening at such a late stage with less than four years to go until the games get underway.

Sources tell me though that Tennis Scotland are very keen to have tennis included in the 2014 games, but the only way for this to happen is if a sport which is already on the list pulls out for whatever reason.

It’s something which is very unlikely, but it’s good to know that Tennis Scotland is on standby if a space does come up out of the blue.

As mentioned in Talking Balls previously, after being included in the Delhi games last year, it’s a shame that tennis won’t get the chance to appear in the Glasgow games.  Especially when you consider that Scottish tennis is presently on a relative high. 

It also means Fleming and Jocelyn Rae won’t get the chance to defend their mixed doubles gold medal on home soil.

When speaking to Australia’s 2010 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Matthew Ebden at Scotstoun last October, he also thought it was a shame as he felt more of the top Commonwealth players would play if tennis was included in 2014 as Scotland benefited from easier access compared to Delhi.

Despite Tennis Scotland’s efforts though, it has realistically got little chance of happening.  A chance to bring a high profile tennis event to Scotland sadly has been missed by Glasgow 2014 organisers.