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TALKING BALLS 041
– FRIDAY 11TH MARCH 2011
Britain get the job done
At times, it was a little too close for comfort.
But in the end, it finished as expected. Great Britain did what they had to and came away with a 4-1 win against Tunisia in the first round of Europe/Africa Zone Group Two last weekend.
With only one player in the world’s top 1000, world No.328 Malek Jaziri, the Tunisians were expected to be pushovers for a British team desperate to start climbing their way back up towards the World Group.
However, Jaziri’s efforts to give his team a fighting chance made things tricky for the home side. He showed determination and grit in every one of the 13 sets he played over the three days.
But despite his best efforts, which included a win in the opening rubber against Jamie Baker, every other rubber went as expected, according to ranking. Britain ended up winning the tie 4-1 and made another step on the road back to tennis’ premier division.
Another step on a long road though. Given that Britain are currently in the third tier of the Davis Cup, they cannot get back into the World Group until 2013 at the earliest. Even then, Britain would have to win every tie they play between now and then.
For now though, they are on the right route. Next up is a home tie against Luxembourg in July, the weekend after Wimbledon. Win that and it will be followed by a promotion play-off against Belarus or Hungary in September.
And with Britain’s star player, Andy Murray, expected to be back in his country’s colours for the next tie, ahead of the 2012 Olympics in London next year, then surely the only way is up.
Murray’s decision to miss the past three ties has been justified. His absence has given players like Baker and James Ward the chance to get some Davis Cup victories under their belts. This crucial experience will hopefully stand either of them in good stead when they play as the No.2 singles pick behind Murray in the future.
Ward showed all of his battling qualities in his five set victory over Jaziri on Sunday. The Tunisian was inspired in some of the tennis he was producing, but Ward fought against the effects of a cold to clinch the vital win and prevent a nervy deciding rubber which would have followed had he lost.
The 24-year-old has now won five out of the six Davis Cup rubbers he has played in the past year. He certainly seems to thrive in the team atmosphere and, at this point in time, would appear to be the clear choice for the second singles pick against Luxembourg.
Baker will have something to say about that though. He is another player who appears to love the unique Davis Cup experience and fought hard against Jaziri on the opening day, narrowly losing out in four sets. All he needs now is to get some wins together on the tour and he will give himself a chance of re-selection for July’s tie.
And when it comes to the doubles, captain Leon Smith is not short of options. Jamie Murray and Colin Fleming were quite rightly the pairing he opted for last weekend, but it would have been a difficult choice with Ken Skupski and Ross Hutchins also in his thoughts.
Looking forward, you can also add Andy Murray to the doubles mix ahead of the Luxembourg tie. The Scot has proven in the past that he is handy on the doubles court and could well team up with his brother for the first time in the Davis Cup in July.
Like Tunisia, opponents Luxembourg also have only one player in the world’s top 1000, Gilles Muller, ranked 108. Their only other ranked player is 18-year-old Mike Vermeer, ranked 1016.
But in Muller, they have an experienced 27-year-old who has a career high ranking of 59. He has beaten some impressive opponents in the past, including Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi, albeit these wins came over five years ago.
Muller is someone who is more than capable of beating Britain’s No.2 pick, and considering his previous wins, may even fancy his chances of giving Murray a scare.
It will be intriguing to see which venue Smith decides to pick for the tie. He was certainly giving away no clues in the immediate aftermath of the victory last weekend.
The initial thought amongst some of the press pack, including myself, was that grass would be the likely choice, perhaps a possible return to Eastbourne. However, as Judy Murray pointed out in Twitter, why use a surface which big-serving Muller would relish, having posted a number of grass court wins in the past?
This train of thought backs up Neil Harman’s revelation in The Times today that the indoor hard courts of Stirling University are being touted as a potential venue. An idea which, for me, came totally out of the blue, but it does indeed appear to be a serious consideration by Smith and the LTA.
It is a piece of news which has generated a lot of excitement north of the border. It would be a huge coup for Scottish tennis if it does indeed come to fruition. Time will tell.
Baker aims to step up
The British players who were part of the Davis Cup team last weekend love the whole experience. Not just the excitement of competing in your country’s colours, but also the practice that a week of preparation provides you with.
This was made clear when I spoke to Baker just moments after his win over Slim Hamza in the final dead rubber which sealed a 4-1 victory for Britain. The 24-year-old from Glasgow was full of enthusiasm after adding another Davis Cup win to his CV, but stressed the importance of the practice he had taken part in over the course of the week.
Baker said: “We always have great practice weeks. Every camp I have been involved in has been like that. Obviously the matches are fantastic to play in, but we also use it as really good training weeks so everyone comes out of it in good shape.”
It has been a difficult start to the year for Baker. He has been hit by some niggling injuries and has failed to get a run of good form going. As a result, his ranking has started to head on a downward spiral, going from No.367 at the start of the year to No.404 at present.
Baker is confident though that he can rise back up the rankings. After playing in Futures events in Glasgow and Turkey so far this year, the Scot appears to now want to concentrate on the higher level tournaments in the coming months.
He said: “I am just trying to get my ranking higher each week but I am planning to do that by playing Challengers and qualifying draws for main tour events as opposed to the futures. I think that playing a higher level of opponent is the best thing for my tennis so I will be trying to do it that way.”
So Baker is now in China for two Challenger tournaments, the first of which begins in Guangzhou tomorrow. He is seeded seventh in qualifying and must win three matches to get through to the main draw.
Interestingly, also joining him in the draw for a rare appearance on the singles court in Guangzhou are fellow Brits Ross Hutchins and Colin Fleming who got into qualifying courtesy of their respective doubles rankings.
Indian Wells anticipation
The 2011 Masters 1000 Series kicks off in Indian Wells amidst much anticipation. For the first time since the Australian Open in January, just about all of the top players will reunite together for what is a mouthwatering event.
There are so many stories surrounding the tournament. Will Novak Djokovic continue his run of good form? Will Murray avoid another slump after grand slam final defeat? How will new kid on the block Milos Raonic perform? These are just some of the questions that will hopefully be partly answered at least over the coming week or so.
As seems to be so often the case in recent times, the draw has pitted Murray in Rafael Nadal’s half with Djokovic and Roger Federer on the other side, with each of the 32 seeds receiving a bye into the second round of the 96 player draw.
Murray should be happy with his draw. The world No.5 has avoided any potential dangerous floaters and plays qualifier Donald Young in his first match. Barring any shock results, his first big test will be against the in-form Robin Soderling in the quarter-finals.
The up-and-coming Raonic finds himself facing a very intriguing potential fourth round match against Federer. The 20-year-old Canadian has stormed up the rankings since the start of the year and could cause problems for the 16-time grand slam champion if they are to meet each other in the last 16.
The doubles draw makes very interesting reading with eight of the top ten singles players giving it a shot. Nadal and Marc Lopez will attempt to defend their title against pairings such as Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka, Andy and Jamie Murray and Djokovic and Viktor Troicki.
With 16 of the 32 pairings in the draw having players from the same country alongside each other, it certainly seems that the 2012 Olympics are starting to come into sight.
The event is of course a mixed ATP/WTA event and like the men’s draw, the women’s event is also very strong given its mandatory status. Only two players from the top 30 are missing.
British interest in the women’s event lies solely with Elena Baltacha. The Scot showed her fighting instincts in her first round match yesterday, saving four match points before going on to beat Italy’s Roberta Vinci in three sets. Next up is a tough opponent in Flavia Pennetta, also from Italy, who is the thirteenth seed.
So it all makes for an excellent week of tennis in the Californian desert. Television coverage of the men’s event begins tomorrow on Sky Sports, whilst the women’s action can be seen on British Eurosport from Sunday.
Ivo Karlovic fires a missile
Having hit a serve of 150mph last month, it appeared inevitable that Raonic would, at some point, go on to break Andy Roddick’s world record of 155mph.
But last weekend, Ivo Karlovic popped out of nowhere to hit a serve of 156mph during Croatia’s Davis Cup tie against Germany. The 32-year-old is currently ranked 239 after missing the second half of 2010 due to injury, but if he continues serving bombs like that, a rankings climb surely awaits.
If you want to watch footage of the record breaking serve, although you may struggle to see the ball as it is so fast, check out this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5iCsIV-Vy8Q