STUART FRASER

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TALKING BALLS 040 Ė WEDNESDAY 2ND MARCH 2011
By Stuart Fraser

Davis Cup hits Bolton

At this point last year, some said that the path back to the Davis Cup World Group for Great Britain started then.

However, Lithuania stopped the journey before it even started.  So here we are yet again, hoping that there will be no slip ups this time because it really is about time we started moving on up again.

Britain face Tunisia in the first round of the Euro/Africa Zone Group 2 this weekend at the Bolton Arena.  Not the most glamorous of ties but the job has to be done nonetheless.

After the departure of captain John Lloyd following the defeat in Lithuania last year, there were signs of rejuvenation under Leon Smith when Great Britain whitewashed Turkey 5-0 last July to avoid a relegation play-off.

And this weekend is now the chance to prove that progress can be made rather than continuing to stagnate at this level.

Davis Cup can be an exciting competition which creates an atmosphere rarely seen in tennis.  However that effect seems to have been lost in this country in recent years due to Britainís downfall.  The lack of television coverage of the tie this weekend says it all.

But that shouldnít concern the team this weekend. They will purely be focusing on getting the job done against opponents who come to Bolton as complete underdogs.

Smith didnít face an easy choice in picking a team to field this weekend.  With none of our singles players standing out in terms of form, apart from Andy Murray who made himself unavailable for selection, there were many different opinions on possible picks.

A difficult decision was also faced in terms of the doubles.  Would Smith opt for the partnership of Colin Fleming and Ross Hutchins, who have only won one match so far this year, or would he consider bringing in the rejuvenated Jamie Murray or perhaps Ken Skupski who won the ATP 250 event in Marseille with Robin Haase the day before the squad announcement.

In the end, Smith went for a five-man squad of James Ward, Alex Bogdanovic, Jamie Baker, Fleming and Murray.  Slightly surprising upon first glance but a squad which makes sense when you think about it.

Ranked 214 in the world, Ward is clearly Britainís second best player, over 100 places ahead of the British No.3 Dan Cox.  Although he has only won two out of nine matches played so far in 2011, he is the only player we have competing regularly at Challenger level and above at present.

He already has Davis Cup wins under his belt, with two against Turkey and one against Lithuania last year.  Once Andy Murray had made himself unavailable for selection, Ward was surely the first pick on Smithís team-sheet.

Bogdanovic was a pick which surprised many.  Having opted out of the tie against Turkey last year and considering his record of having lost seven of the eight rubbers that he has played, it was thought that the 26-year-oldís Davis Cup career had perhaps come to an end.

But despite a fall to No.374 in the rankings, partly due to injury last year, Smith clearly feels he can still do a job for the team.  There is no question that Bogdanovic has the talent, but his mental strength is certainly a concern.  Itís a tie though which is ideal to help banish any Davis Cup doubts that he may still have in his mind.

Baker hasnít had too great a start to the year either, dropping out of the Worldís top 400, but his Davis Cup experience will have helped him get the pick ahead of four other potential candidates who are ahead of him in the rankings.  His two comfortable straight sets wins against Turkey in Eastbourne last year were very solid indeed.

In terms of the doubles, Fleming and Murray are no strangers to each other and will be a decent partnership.  The pair played together regularly in their early days on the tour in 2006 and reunited last November to win the Challenger event in Bratislava.

Murray is back in the top 50 now and in Rotterdam recently, he showed signs of the sharp play which helped win him and Jelena Jankovic the Wimbledon Mixed Doubles title in 2007.

Fleming hasnít had the results he would have been hoping for in his new partnership with Ross Hutchins this year, but he has plenty of Davis Cup experience behind him and can also provide singles cover if required.

And what about the opposition I hear you ask.  Well, the fact they only have two players with a world ranking tells you a lot.

World No.325 Malek Jaziri is their best player by a long way.  The 27-year-old has plenty of Davis Cup ties under his belt, having first appeared for his country against Monaco in 2000.  He will fancy his chances of winning both his singles rubbers to give his team a fighting chance.  Iím not sure I do though.

18-year-old Slim Hamza is their only other ranked player at No.1602, having won his sole ranking point at a Futures event in his homeland last year.  Ahmed Triki, also aged 18, and 19-year-old Sami Ghorbel are the other two players included.

In terms of their line-up, Jaziri and Hamza will likely be the two singles picks this weekend, with the former teaming up with another of his teammates, possibly Triki, in Saturdayís doubles.

So if the tie goes according to ranking, Britain should win 4-1.  However as we all know, and seen against Lithuania last year, Davis Cup ties donít always go that way.

However, if it is to be anything other than a 4-1 victory for the home side, then it will be a 5-0 win.  I canít see Tunisia possibly winning any more than one rubber.  A Great Britain win is surely on the cards.  Fingers crossed I am not eating humble pie come Sunday evening.

Davis Cup weekend

As I mentioned previously, Davis Cup can create a rare and special atmosphere and all over the world this weekend different venues will get to experience a bit of that as tennisí premier international team competition gets underway.

There are some intriguing ties in the World Group, as 16 countries begin a campaign which they hope will end in celebration come early December.

2010 champions Serbia begin their defence of their title with a home tie against India.  Man of the moment Novak Djokovic wonít be appearing due to fatigue, but the home team will still be clear favourites with Janko Tipsarevic and Viktor Troicki playing singles.

Spain travel to take on Belgium in a tie which will see the return of Rafael Nadal.  Backed up by David Ferrer, Fernando Verdasco and Felicano Lopez, the World No.1ís team are heavy favourites to win this weekend and are my picks to go on and win the competition this year.  Time will tell.

Jim Courier takes charge of the USA team for the first time and he will also fancy his chances of victory this year.  He travels to Chile this weekend with Andy Roddick, John Isner and the Bryan Brothers.  The tie may be on clay but the Americans will surely have too much for a Chilean side missing Fernando Gonzalez.

The televised tie on Sky Sports this weekend is the meeting of Austria and France.  The match intriguingly takes place indoors on clay in an airport hanger at Vienna Airport with a capacity crowd of 6,000 expected to be in attendance.

French captain Guy Forget has been hit by injury after Gael Monfils, Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga were all forced to withdraw.  However France has a total of nine players in the top 100 so are not short of talent and can still boast a team including Gilles Simon, Michael Llodra, Julien Benneteau and Jeremy Chardy.

So we can look forward to an intriguing weekend of Davis Cup ties.  All will be using the new rule announced by the ITF today in which teams will not have to play the fifth rubber if one side already has an unbeaten 3-1 lead.

The rule will only be enforced though if the fourth rubber lasts at least four sets.  It would then be down to the captains to decide whether the dead fifth rubber is scrapped or not.

Itís an interesting rule change, especially ahead of a weekend in which two of the worldís top five players will miss their countryís ties.

A bright prospect

Last Tuesday I took a trip up to Scotlandís National Tennis Centre at Stirling University to have a chat with a rising star and an experienced mentor.

Just 48 hours after helping Great Britainís 16-and-under boysí team win the Tennis Europe Winter Cup in France, 16-year-old Jonny OíMara was back on court training with Judy Murray watching on in the background.

It is a measure of the young manís commitment and dedication.  Having only arrived back in Scotland the day before, it would have been easy to have taken the day off, maybe even the whole week.

But the young Scot, from Arbroath, clearly realises that as big as his teamís win was in France, it is merely another step on the long journey to becoming a professional tennis player.

When I spoke to him after his training session, it was clear he was still on a high from Sundayís crucial deciding doubles rubber in the final against France.  The hosts were backed by a crowd of hundreds and were fielding a pair who had never lost a live rubber.

Understandably Jonny prefers singles but winning this doubles match with partner Chris Pearce provided him with the best feeling of his fledgling tennis career so far.  He said: ďI have never felt like that in doubles before.

ďIt was the best tennis match of my life.  The two French boys we had to play, Alexandro Favrot and Enzo Py, were unbeaten in two years so we were definitely the underdogs.  When we won the last point when I hit a return winner, it was an unbelievable feeling.Ē

In winning the prestigious Winter Cup, OíMara and the rest of the three man team went one step better than a young Andy Murray and Jamie Baker who were part of the British side which reached the final in 2002.  A Spanish team including a certain Rafael Nadal were the victors on that day.

Jonny is backed by a top class team headed by regular coach Mark Walker.  Judy provides guidance and he is assisted with his fitness by former 10,000m world champion Liz McColgan.  His Dad Dave, who is a Doctor of Psychology, is also a major influence.

Jonny sits his standard grade exams in May and will then decide upon the next step.  Going down the academy route, like Andy Murray did, is a possibility but Judy stresses he has to be fully committed and convinced that this is what he wants to do.

Judy said: ďIt has to be his decision.  We can advise him but he has to be comfortable with leaving school, leaving home and really trying to commit to the life of a tennis player.  He has achieved a lot over the last few weeks and has shown he is one of the best kids in Europe for his age group and itís now really up to him to use this to kick on.Ē

Ex-goalkeeper turns to tennis

The Scottish Indoor Veterans Championships took place at the Scotstoun Leisure Centre in Glasgow last weekend and one competitor was particularly more recognisable than the others Ė former Scotland goalkeeper Alan Rough.

The 59 year-old, who played for clubs including Celtic and Partick Thistle and won 53 caps for Scotland, took part in the Menís 60 Singles and Menís 55 Doubles.  There was to be no success for Rough though as he was forced to retire from his opening singles match and also suffered a straight sets doubles defeat.

Having played with and against him at my local club in Hamilton, itís clear though that he still has the old goalkeeping reflexes.  Whilst he may not be the fastest of movers around the court, he is quick at the net and can even throw in the old tricky chip lob at times.  Not easy to play against for sure.