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By Stuart Fraser

Tennis heads to Asia

For some, there may be a feeling that the tennis season is all but over after the US Open, the final grand slam of the year, concluded last month with Novak Djokovic claiming victory.

But while there may be no more major titles to win this year, there is still plenty to play for as the tour heads to Asia where lots of points are up for grabs, which is of particular importance to those looking to secure a place at the ATP World Tour Finals in London next month.

The Asian swing is a period of the season which can often throw up a few shock results, as well as withdrawals and retirements due to injury and fatigue.

A glance at the China Open’s entry list this week highlights this.  The top three seeds –Djokovic, Robin Soderling and Gael Monfils – all pulled out beforehand which would have been a hammer blow to those who run the tournament in Beijing.

Djokovic’s back injury, which he sustained during Serbia’s Davis Cup semi-final loss to Argentina last month, looks set to also rule him out of next week’s Shanghai Masters, a tournament in which Roger Federer has already withdrawn to “rest and recuperate”.

Juan Martin Del Potro has also withdrawn from Shanghai as part of his plan to be in top shape for Argentina’s Davis Cup Final against Spain in December.  He will play three consecutive weeks, starting later this month, in Vienna, Valencia and Paris, and with it, has significantly diminished his chances of qualifying for London next month.

The absence of many top players inevitably demeans the importance of the Asian swing to some extent, but it offers a great chance for others to pick up some ranking points, although they will still have Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray to contend with, both of whom have made the lengthy trip from Europe and look in fine shape, as you would expect.

Nadal opened up his Asian campaign at the Japan Open today and the top seed eased past home hope Go Soeda in a 6-3 6-2 win. 

The Spaniard arrived in Tokyo from Taiwan where he had taken part in an exhibition match last week with David Ferrer, something which understandably further raised eyebrows amongst those who are already unhappy with the players’ complaints about the schedule being too long.

That is a discussion for another week though.  In fact, the players’ meeting on the subject, which was due to take place in Shanghai next week, is now in doubt due to the absence of Federer and the likely withdrawal of Djokovic.

Murray has opted to play three consecutive weeks of tournaments in Asia this year – Bangkok, Tokyo and Shanghai.  A decision which seemed rather strange at first, but made perfect sense when he explained that he was playing Bangkok in order to help get over the jet lag a bit sooner, having struggled in previous years.

It was a perfect start for Murray in Thailand last week as he won his 19th ATP Tour singles title in fine fashion.  The Scot was in great form all week and impressed with his high first serve percentage, aggressive intent from the baseline and consistent application.

I heard someone unfairly and misguidedly describe the Thailand Open, an ATP 250 event, as a “diddy tournament”.  It is true that it may not rank high on Murray’s list of achievements at the end of his career, but it will have provided him with a sense of satisfaction and, crucially, confidence to take into further tournaments.

It’s a busy period for Murray who is now in Tokyo, not just for singles, but also for doubles with elder brother Jamie.  The pair got off to a fine start, winning their first round match against Pablo Andujar and Milos Raonic, and will fancy their chances against the local wild card pairing of Tatsuma Ito and Kei Nishikori in the quarter-finals.

Andy will be desperate to help out Jamie who has a large number of ranking points to defend between now and the end of the season.  The fact the Japan Open is an ATP 500 event means that it is a great opportunity to rack up some of these crucial points.

But while Andy will hope to do his brother a favour, his main focus will be the singles in which he gets his campaign underway tomorrow in a testing first round match against Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis, last week’s runner-up in Kuala Lumpur, who has a 3-1 head-to-head record over the Scot.

As the second seed, Murray is the clear favourite though and will be hoping for another good week, perhaps another title win, to help him achieve his goal of finishing the year as the world No.3 ahead of Federer.

And with the Swiss not due in action again until the ATP 500 event in his hometown of Basel at the end of the month, it’s a fair bet that Murray will do just that, although Federer, being the competitive great that he is, will no doubt have other ideas.  Who said the tennis season was over?

More success for British juniors

It has been a tremendous period recently for Britain’s junior boys, culminating with victory in the Junior Davis Cup in Mexico at the weekend.

Captained by Greg Rusedski, the trio of Luke Bambridge, Kyle Edmund and Evan Hoyt – all aged 16 – put in an impressive performance from start to finish to live up to Great Britain’s top seeding by winning the event for the first time in its 26-year history.

This is one of junior tennis’s most prestigious competitions.  Rafael Nadal won the event with Spain in 2002 and Andy Roddick, Roger Federer and Marat Safin have all turned out for their respective countries in years gone by.

It is yet another sign that all is rosy with Britain’s junior players after 18-year-old Oliver Golding won the US Open Boys’ title last month, with his compatriots, Edmund and George Morgan, also reaching the semi-finals.

What struck me as I watched, on a grainy online Facebook stream, the closing moments of Kyle Edmund’s decisive win against his Italian opponent in the final on Sunday was the manner in which he closed his victory out. 

There was no sign of any nerves or tightness as the youngster served out a 6-3 6-4 victory in confident fashion.  Judging by all accounts, that is the manner in which the British juniors performed all week which bodes well.

Rusedski is doing a great job as a mentor to Britain’s young players.  His positive thoughts and enthusiasm is clearly rubbing off on them and they all speak highly of the impact he has had.

When speaking to Jonny O’Mara, the young Scot who was a part of the British team, also captained by Rusedski, which won the Tennis Europe Winter Cup in February, he enthused about the inspiration he had gained from working with the former world No.4.

A man of Rusedski’s experience knows though that this is only the beginning for this young group of Brits.  There is many a player in the past who has showed promise at a young age, only to fail to fulfil it.

The transition to the senior game is the critical stage.  The most encouraging thing about the British junior success recently is that it appears we will have a number of players all pushing each other on as they make these crucial steps forward.

More public courts needed

The recent launch of the new public courts at Brodie Park in Paisley brought to my attention an alarming situation across Scotland.

I couldn’t quite believe it when someone told me that, until the new facility in Paisley was opened just over a fortnight ago, there were no courts to play on in Scotland’s second largest town with a population of around 74,000.

What was more staggering was what I discovered when researching the amount of public courts in some of Scotland’s other big towns.  Some large towns did not have any courts.  Some had very few.  Others had courts lying in a state of disrepair.

All this at a time when we should be taking full advantage of the Andy Murray boom.  We have such a great opportunity to grow the sport at this time, yet we do not have enough places to play in some of our biggest towns for those who want to give tennis a try.

The lack of indoor courts in Scotland also comes to the fore as we approach winter.  The LTA and Tennis Scotland assure us they are working on resolving these issues.  Let us hope so before it is too late.

If you want to read more on this, check out my piece in last week’s Herald which includes quotes from Judy Murray and David Marshall, Chief Executive of Tennis Scotland:

You may have to register to see the full story, but it only takes a minute plus it’s free and worth it as the Herald covers tennis in-depth throughout the year.

On a similar theme, BBC Scotland’s David McDaid has also produced an excellent feature on participation and facilities in the country which is well worth a look: