Thursday, 15 November 2012


A seventh Wimbledon championship, five ATP titles, an Olympic silver medal and a 16-week spell as world No.1, breaking the record of Pete Sampras for most weeks at the top spot.  Not a bad year for a 31-year-old.

It has been another memorable season for Roger Federer.  By his high standards, it might not be up there with 2006 when he posted a 92-5 match record, winning 12 titles in the process, but it is a remarkable effort from someone who is supposed to be reaching the twilight of his career.

It was just a few weeks ago after being defeated in the final of his hometown tournament, the Swiss Indoors in Basel, by Juan Martin Del Potro that some rather hastily wondered once again if we were witnessing the beginning of the end for the great champion.

Federer provided the perfect response with his performances at the ATP World Tour Finals in London.  He followed up his impressive win over Andy Murray in the semi-finals by playing his part in a match against Novak Djokovic which produced some of the best tennis seen this year.  Federer may have lost but showed he can still compete at the highest level.

As much as players maintain they don’t take any notice of what is in the newspapers, the doubts from some about Federer’s capability to win the biggest titles will not have gone unnoticed within his camp.  After his win over Murray in the Wimbledon final this year, you couldn’t help feel that he was just as, if not more satisfied about proving so many wrong people wrong as he was about the records he was breaking in the process.

“I reflect in a nice way,” Federer said as he looked back on 2012.  “I think it’s been a fantastic season to be part of.  Four different Grand Slam champs.  Then having the Olympics, as well, was obviously very unique.  I’m very happy I stayed injury-free throughout.  That allowed me to basically play a full schedule almost.

“I’m very pleased that I was able to pick up my performance at the end of the season, like I played now this week [in London].  So [it] obviously gives me confidence for next year.”

Ranked No.2, Federer is still right up there and in the mix at any tournament.  His astounding record of reaching 34 consecutive grand slam quarter-finals – which is still ongoing – is a testament to his consistency and longevity.

Some still feel to this day that if Federer plays his best tennis, he will win any match against any opponent.  That may or may not be the case, but the fact is that these days he does not play his best tennis as regularly as he may once have done.

Having achieved just about everything in the sport and with a wife and two young children to look after, what fuels the motivation to continue playing?

“I think it’s the love for the game, the appreciation I get from the crowds, I guess playing for records from time to time, playing against different types of generations and playing styles,” he said.  “The game has evolved sort of over the last, what has it been, 13 years I’ve been on tour, 14 maybe.  It’s changed quite a bit ever since.

“I think you need inspiration, motivation from different angles to keep you going because it ain’t that simple just to wake up every morning and go for another travel around the world, another practice, all these other things, another fitness workout, another stretch.

“It’s always nice, but you need to have some success and you need to have the right reasons why you’re doing it.  I think I’ve always been able to do that and I really enjoy myself out on the court.”

Competing against Djokovic, Murray and Nadal in what is generally regarded as the strongest ever era in men’s tennis also helps to keep the fire burning.  “It’s part of the puzzle that makes me motivated, trying to play against them,” said Federer.  “But Novak, Andy and Rafa are not the only guys out there.  I’m trying to play against many other guys.

“I love playing against particularly young guys as well just because too many sometimes I’m an idol, which is very strange to me, to be honest.  But it is nice seeing them grow, see what the next generation comes up with, what kind of playing style.”

Federer has seen quite a contrast in the playing style from his early days on tour in the late 1990s to now.  With fast courts now as rare as an ice cube in the Sahara, serve and volley is near extinction, something which Federer is clearly saddened about.

“It’s only on this type of slow courts that you can defend the way we are all doing right now,” he said.  “I think it’s exciting, but no doubt about it, it’s tough.  What you don’t want is that you hit 15 great shots and at the end, it ends up in an error.

“So I think sometimes quicker courts do help the cause.  I think it would help from time to time to move to something a bit faster.  That would help to learn, as well, for many different players, different playing styles, to realize that coming to the net is a good thing, it’s not a bad thing.

“Then again, the tour has to decide, the tournament directors have a big say in it.

“I’ve played on all different speeds.  But I think some variety would be nice, some really slow stuff and then some really fast stuff, instead of trying to make everything sort of the same.  You sort of protect the top guys really by doing that because you have the best possible chance to have them in the semis at this point, I think.

“But that should be the goal? I’m not sure.”

As the president of the ATP Players Council, Federer has a key role as the elder statesman off the court representing his fellow professionals.  He was one of the leading voices in the calls for a longer off-season, which was granted with an extra two weeks from this year onwards.

But with an increasing amount of exhibitions popping up over the next two months, some now question the real motives of the players in wanting more time off.  Over the course of the next month, Djokovic plays in Slovakia and Brazil, Murray in Miami and Federer himself will play a four-date South American tour.

“That’s the beauty of an off-season, you’re allowed to do whatever the hell you want,” he countered.  “I think that’s what’s nice, instead of having such a congested space where you can just barely take enough rest.

“Now if players want to play some matches, wherever it may be, that’s their choice.  If you want to rest for six weeks, just don’t do anything, you can do that as well, which was not possible in the past.  I think it’s definitely good.

“Now obviously it’s the responsibility of the players to not make errors and keep on playing, never to rest, all those things.  But at least it’s their choice, I find, which is a good thing

“I know I’m playing exhibitions, but I think my situation is pretty unique.  I’ve never been to South America as a professional tennis player.  Couldn’t be more excited now for that trip.  But I made sure I have a two-week vacation before that.

“So for me that is even the beginning of the build-up and the workouts.  And on top of it, it’s a lot of fun.  Plus I’m not playing any exhibitions after that, like I have in the past.  I’m not playing the first week of the year either.

“Basically I’ve given myself enough space.  It’s about just making sure you manage your schedule correctly.”

Federer has still to confirm his tournament schedule for next year.  Having turned 31 this year, played 600 matches and served 12 years on the tour, he will have the luxury of being able to play as many or as few Masters 1000 events as he wants.  It will be interesting to see how he works that into his schedule.

There is the possibility that he may not play a tournament before the Australian Open, having opted out of Doha where he traditionally warms up for the first grand slam of the year.  It shall also be intriguing to see if he commits to Switzerland’s Davis Cup World Group tie against the Czech Republic which takes place in Geneva just five days after the conclusion of the Australian Open.

“I first have to make sure I create my schedule so it makes sense for my practice schedule,” said Federer.  “I need to practice a whole lot more next year, because this year, I hardly did have an opportunity to do.  I have some catching up to do in that standpoint.”

Monday, 5 November 2012


Back to London once again it is.

In what has been quite a year for sport in the city, it is somewhat fitting that a memorable season in men’s tennis shall conclude here over the coming eight days at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals.

Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin Del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Janko Tipsarevic may arrive at the O2 Arena with a few aches and pains after a long and demanding year, but none are lacking in motivation to give it one last push to finish on a high at the end-of-season championships, which this year immediately follows the Paris Masters 1000 event.

The removal of the seven day gap between Paris and London was not ideal.  Paris particularly suffered as only one of the eight players who had qualified for London made it past the quarter-finals, while the fact the eight-man field was not confirmed until Thursday created new challenges for tournament organisers in London.

The schedule is always a notable topic of conversation around this stage of the season, and although it has predictably come up during the course of numerous press conferences, it is the theme of drug testing which appears to be most prominent after Murray’s comments in Paris in which he called for more blood testing in tennis.

Murray then spent part of this week defending himself on Twitter against cycling fans who had taken issue with his comments on the lower level of skill required in cycling compared to tennis.  But while he may have upset some of the cycling fraternity, he will be happy to have received the backing of Federer who agreed with his thoughts on the lack of testing in tennis.

Federer said: “I feel I am being less tested this time now than six, seven, eight years ago.  I don’t know the exact reasons why we are being tested less.  At this moment, I agree with Andy.  We don’t do a lot of blood testing during the year.  I am OK having more of that.

“I think we should up it a little bit or a lot because I think it is key and vital that the sport stays clean.  It has got to.  We have got a good history in that and we have got to make sure it stays that way.”

The attention will turn to the court today when the action gets underway with Murray vs Berdych in Group A.  The nature of the format means that the Brit cannot afford a slow start in a group also containing Djokovic and Tsonga.

It is rare for Murray to let a winning position pass him by, but that is exactly what has happened in his three tournaments since winning the US Open in September.  In Tokyo vs Milos Raonic, Shanghai vs Djokovic and Paris vs Jerzy Janowicz, Murray has had match points in all three before going on to lose.

It is something Murray will have no doubt discussed with coach Ivan Lendl who is in town this week.

Murray said: “I am aware how hard it is to finish matches off.  It is not an easy thing to do.  I don’t feel in the match against Novak that I did too much wrong.  I was disappointed with last week [Paris], I don’t feel that I focused as hard I needed to when I was serving for the match.

“That’s something this week that I will make sure I play every point at a time, take my time and fight for every single point because they all count for the same at the end of the match.  I will need to try and do a better job of that.”

The draw guarantees episode 17 of the Djokovic vs Murray rivalry will be held in London.  Much has been made of this as the new leading rivalry in the sport ahead of Federer vs Nadal.  The crowd will be delighted if the encounter between the two 25-year-olds this week is anything like their epic meetings this year in Melbourne, New York and Shanghai.

Djokovic, who is guaranteed to finish the year as world No.1, arrives in London on the back of a shock defeat in his first match in Paris last week to Sam Querrey. The Serb admitted he is dealing with some “issues” at present, although he wished not to divulge any more details.  Reports from Belgrade last week said that his father was being treated in hospital for an acute respiratory illness.

Although Djokovic and Murray will be heavily fancied to progress, Berdych and Tsonga should not immediately be ruled out of the running.  A good week in London for Berdych would be the perfect confidence booster ahead of next week’s Davis Cup Final in Prague between Czech Republic and Spain, while Tsonga will be aiming to go one better after his three-set defeat to Federer in the final here last year.

Federer arrives in London as some begin to wonder again if this really is the beginning of the end for the great champion.  It may be unwise to think such a thing given that the 31-year-old proved so many people wrong just four months ago by winning his seventh Wimbledon title and reclaiming the world No.1 spot.

There are no easy draws at an event like this but it is acknowledged that Federer will be happy with how his group has turned out, although it will provide a rerun of the recent Basel final in which Federer suffered a surprise defeat on home soil to Del Potro in three sets.

While it was a sore one for the Swiss, it was a massive win for Del Potro, who has battled back after a number of injury setbacks, and it will give the Argentine the belief that he can do it again in London.

Ferrer arrives from Paris after winning his first Masters 1000 title at the age of 30, an achievement many in the sport feel is nothing short of well deserved, while Tipsarevic’s solid and consistent play all season has earned him a place after the withdrawal of Rafael Nadal.

Jonathan Marray ensures that there will be added home interest in this year’s doubles event as he and Danish partner Frederik Nielsen take their place in the draw, earned after teaming up as wild cards to win at Wimbledon, and the Brit will fear nobody after teaming up with Paul Hanley to beat Bob & Mike Bryan in Paris last week.

Colin Fleming and Ross Hutchins are also on site as the first alternates.  Considering that it is 13 years since an alternate pairing played a match at the end-of-season championships, the chances of the British pair getting some match time may be remote, but the experience of being around the venue and the opportunities to practice with Murray can only be good.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012


Take a look at the results in British men’s tennis this week for an indicator of where the level of the game is currently at in this country.  It provides a more realistic view than solely judging it by results on the first two days of Wimbledon.

Jamie Baker’s first-round win in Bath today is just one of two Challenger singles main draw wins by British players so far in 2012 – the other was Alex Bogdanovic’s first-round victory in Dallas last month.

Three of the other four Brits in the main draw - 18-year-old wild card Liam Broady plays tomorrow - failed to win a set in their first-round matches.

In qualifying for Bath, which is one of four Challenger events to be held in the UK this year, just one Brit out of 18 reached the final qualifying round – Ed Corrie who failed to make it to the main draw.

To be fair to James Ward and Dan Evans, it was a tough task for the Davis Cup teammates to come through Miami Masters qualifying, which is a draw with effectively the same standard as a high-level Challenger. 

Ward had a good win over Andrey Golubev but failed to get past Edouard Roger-Vasselin in the final qualifying round, while Evans lost his first match to Bjorn Phau.

I am certainly not slating the British players.  If you look at the individual match-ups, many of their opponents were favourites by form and ranking.   I am just looking at the bigger picture.

Ward is actually the only Brit to have won a Challenger - two in Lexington and Vancouver last year - since Bogdanovic was the champion in Kolding, Denmark in October 2009.

The future admittedly does look brighter at junior level, but we will not be seeing any more British men joining Andy Murray in the top 100 until this barrier at Challenger level is overcome.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012


As it creeps ever closer, this year’s Olympics is fast becoming the talk of the tour.  It is a subject which is a regular topic of discussion in press conferences and the anticipation and excitement is evident on the faces of the players as they look ahead to London 2012.

The tennis event may not quite have the stature of a grand slam, but it provides an opportunity, which only comes along once every four years, to pick up a medal in what is arguably the world’s greatest sporting event.

There may have been reservations over what the Olympics actually meant to the top tennis players in the past, but there is no doubt that this year’s event is a major priority for all who can qualify. It is certainly no distraction; it is truly this year’s ‘fifth grand slam’.

The fact it takes place at the All England Club adds to the appeal.  Just 20 days after the last ball is hit in The Championships 2012, the players will take to the grass of Wimbledon once more from Saturday 28 July, the first ball being hit just 13 hours after the opening ceremony concludes the night before, to Sunday 5 August for nine days of Olympic tennis.

This will not just be another repeat of The Championships, however.  With Olympic branding surrounding the courts and music being played as the players walk out in different-coloured clothing – there will be no all-white dress rule – to the vocal support of fans from their respective countries, this will be an event with a very different feel to the one we are normally accustomed to at SW19.

But which tennis players shall we see competing at the Olympics this year?  The event is not akin to a grand slam where the top 104, 16 qualifiers and eight wild card entrants make up a draw of 128.  The men’s singles draw, for example, will have a total of 64 players.

However, the complexities of the qualification system mean that world No.19 Fernando Verdasco, of Spain, and France’s Julien Benneteau, ranked No.33, could well miss out.

If you are struggling to get your head round that and fathom who will be there and who won’t, then hopefully this extensive guide to Olympic qualification will explain all:


As stated previously, the singles draws will each consist of 64 players.  The top 56 players in the world rankings of Monday 11 June will qualify as direct acceptances, although each country is limited to a maximum of four players in the singles.

This is why players like Verdasco and Benneteau may not qualify.  As Spain and France both have several top players, there is four of their fellow countrymen above them in the rankings.  This is not something Great Britain will have to think too much about, with Andy Murray currently the only player in the top 56 at No.4.

As Verdasco could not compete, his space would then go to the world No.57 and so on until all the 56 direct acceptance slots are filled.

There are also six ITF places, which are effectively wild cards.  These will be allocated to players who have not qualified for the event as direct acceptances and factors such as rankings, whether the country is already represented and geographical location will be considered by the ITF. 

There is a strong possibility that the British No.2 - currently world No.163 James Ward - will be awarded an ITF place since the Olympics is being held in London.  However, this will not be confirmed until June 28 when the announcement is made.

The remaining two places are allocated by the Tripartite Commission and generally go to smaller countries that are not well represented in the Olympics.  For example, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, then-world No.447 Rafael Arevalo, of El Salvador and Togo’s Komlavi Loglo, then-world No.526, were chosen for the men’s singles.

Every competitor in the Olympics must also be in good standing with their own association and the ITF, and must have made themselves available for Davis Cup or Fed Cup selection in at least two of the following years: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012.  One of these years must either be 2011 or 2012.

This has created an unfortunate situation where world No.7 Marion Bartoli, of France, is likely to miss out.  She is in the middle of a long-running dispute with the French tennis federation and has not played in the Fed Cup since 2004.  This deems her ineligible, although she hopes to receive an exemption from the ITF, which many observers feel is unlikely.

The draw will be made on Thursday 26 July at 11am.  There will be sixteen seeds, based on the latest rankings, and the draw will ensure that players from the same country are kept apart in the early stages, with two players in different halves and three or four in different quarters.

All matches will be the best of three sets, with tiebreaks in the first two sets only, except the Men’s Singles final which will be the best of five sets, with tiebreaks in the first four sets only.  A player will have to win six matches to become champion.


The doubles events are slightly more complex.  There will be 32 teams in each draw, with the top 24 teams in the combined singles and doubles rankings of Monday 11 June qualifying as direct acceptances.  Each country can enter a maximum of two teams.

However, the difference here is that players ranked in the doubles top 10 are prioritised and can play with a partner of their choice, provided they have a world ranking.  For example, doubles world No.3 Max Mirnyi, of Belarus, could choose to play with Alexander Bury, currently ranked No.175.

One peculiar scenario is that of Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi, of Pakistan, who is currently ranked 11 in the doubles rankings and is hopeful of being in the top 10 by the cut-off date, but does not have anyone to play with as there are no other Pakistanis with a world ranking at present.

There are reports that 32-year-old Aqeel Khan, the former world No.349 who has not had a ranking since July 2010, could attempt to gain a ranking point at a forthcoming Futures event to become eligible to play alongside Qureshi in London.  If Khan is not successful, though, Qureshi is hopeful that he may receive a place in the singles event courtesy of the Tripartite Commission.

Once the top 10 doubles players have selected their partners, the remaining slots in the initial 24 will go to the highest-ranked combined pairs, just as it is done in tour events.  Based on recent ranking lists, the cut is likely to be around the 50-60 mark.  However, this is a very rough estimate as we will not be certain of the doubles teams who have entered until June.

The remaining eight places, effectively wild cards, will be allocated by the ITF.  Great Britain will be hopeful of receiving one of these places if either Andy and Jamie Murray or Colin Fleming and Ross Hutchins fail to qualify by right.

Another point worth considering is that a country can only have a maximum total of six men and six women in their Olympic tennis team.   For example, this may affect the selection of the USA who will likely have four players in the Men’s Singles.  Bob and Mike Bryan will be entered in the Men’s Doubles, meaning that the other doubles slot, if they wish to take it up, would have to be filled by two of the singles entrants.

This would have an impact on someone like Eric Butorac, who is currently ranked No.31 in the doubles rankings, and would likely make the cut by teaming up with world No.8 Mardy Fish.  However, Butorac cannot enter as it would bring the amount of male athletes in the American side to more than six.

The draw will be made on Thursday 26 July at 11am.  There will be a total of eight seeded pairs, although it is interesting to note that the selection of the seeds in the doubles will be at the discretion of the ITF, with the latest rankings being used as a primary, but not sole, basis for such selections.

Matches will be played as the best of three sets, with tiebreaks in the first two sets only.  A team will have to win five matches to become champions.


Mixed Doubles returns to the Olympics for the first time in 88 years and promises to be another intriguing part of the tennis event.  The draw shall be made up of 16 teams, with a maximum of two from each country.

Rather than entries being done in advance like the other events, entries shall be made by each national association on-site.  Players are only eligible for the Mixed Doubles if they are competing in the other events, which means that someone like Jamie Murray could not compete in the mixed if he was not playing in the Men’s Doubles.

The top 12 teams based on the combined rankings of Monday 11 June will qualify as direct acceptances.  The remaining four spots will be used as ITF places (wild cards).

The deadline for on-site entries is Tuesday 31 July at 11am, with the draw, including four seeded pairs, being made later that day.  The event will start on Wednesday 1 August.

There are some pairs who have already indicated interest in participating, Andy Roddick and Serena Williams probably being the most well-known example.  The deadline on Tuesday, though, will likely see late decisions being made, with players who have been knocked out of other events in the early stages perhaps deciding to give the mixed a go.

For example, imagine Andy Murray was knocked out of both the Men’s Singles and Men’s Doubles events in the first round.  The Mixed Doubles would provide him with one last chance to pick up a medal at his home Olympics.

Matches will be played as the best of three sets, with tiebreaks in the first two sets if required and a match tiebreak (first to ten points and win by two) as the deciding set.  A team will have to win four matches to become champions.


The winner of the Men’s Singles event earns 750 ATP ranking points, while the runner-up receives 450 points.  The Women’s Singles champion will get 685 WTA points, with the runner-up receiving 470 points.

Unlike boxing where the two losing semi-finalists are both awarded a bronze medal, there is a 3rd/4th place play-off in each of the tennis events.  Both the singles bronze medallists will receive 340 ranking points.

There are no ranking points awarded in the doubles events.


There is no question that those who miss out on qualification for the Olympics will be disappointed, but it is not all doom and gloom as there are alternative events on that week, which will suffer from weakened entry lists.

The men can play in the Legg Mason Classic hard-court event in Washington DC, which is part of the ATP 500 series.  The tournament had five of the top 20 last year, but that is unlikely to be the case this year due to the clash with the Olympics.  If Verdasco did not qualify for London, he would likely be the top seed here.

The women also have an option in Washington DC, with the Citi Open, a WTA International event, taking place that same week.

There is the possibility that players may prefer to play in the USA as the Olympics is not a mandatory event.  Some may feel they have a better chance of earning crucial ranking points on the hard-courts in Washington DC, although it is hard to imagine that there are many willing to miss out on the Olympic experience.

Players may also feel that by playing in Washington DC, they may be better prepared for the ATP Masters and WTA Premier events in Canada the following week.  The Olympics and Rogers Cup events are back-to-back and it will be a tough ask for players to perform well on hard-courts having flown straight from London, where they were playing on grass.


I hope this has helped you develop an understanding of the Olympics qualification system.  I understand that it is not easy to grasp, so if you have any further questions, leave a comment below or tweet @stu_fraser and I will do my best to help.

The full ITF Olympic rulebook is available here:

Thursday, 2 February 2012


It has been a happy time for Leon Smith as the AEGON Great Britain Davis Cup team captain.  Four wins out of four ties in charge have seen his side earn their place back in Europe/Africa Zone Group One.

However, that win streak is under threat of coming to a halt next week at the Braehead Arena, on the outskirts of Glasgow, against the Slovak Republic after Andy Murray announced he will miss the tie on medical grounds.

The world No.4’s absence will allow him extra time to recover from his exertions in Australia and spend some time training with Ivan Lendl in Miami before he returns to action at the Dubai ATP 500 event, which begins on February 27.

For Great Britain, though, it is a huge blow and has changed the complexion of the tie.  In a role-reversal, the home side are no longer favourites. 

Tonight, Smith heads back to the UK from Eilat, where he has been watching and assisting Judy Murray’s Fed Cup team, to finalise his preparations for next week.  He is understandably disappointed that he won’t be joined by his former protégé in Glasgow but is more than understanding of his reasons.

Smith said: “I am 100 percent behind Andy’s decision.  There is no doubt for Andy, but also for British tennis, that his career is about getting his first grand slam and beyond that.  Coupled with the Olympics being on, it is a packed schedule and it is a very important year for him.

“We saw how close he was to toppling Novak Djokovic in Australia and I am with him on this.  I think he has got to look after his body and look after his preparations for the rest of the year.”

21-year-old Dan Evans, ranked 296, comes in for Murray, in what will be his first Davis Cup appearance since the loss away to Lithuania in March 2010 - and joins team regulars James Ward, the world No.155, Colin Fleming and Ross Hutchins.

Both of the Slovak Republic’s singles picks are ranked ahead of Ward.  Lukas Lacko is ranked just within the top 100 at No.97 and Martin Klizan is at No.116 - and they are joined by two accomplished doubles specialists in Filip Polasek and Michal Mertinak.

The rankings show that Britain will face a tough task in trying to get the three victories required to win the tie.  Smith acknowledges this but maintains that they will try their best to achieve what would be a win against the odds.

He said: “We have got to now look again where we are at on the men’s side.  We have got players who are in a bit of form - Ward, who qualified for the first time at a grand slam in Australia, and Evans, who recently qualified for the Zagreb ATP event, which is a good sign - so we have got to put these guys on the court and it’s up to all of us to try and work hard and win without Andy.

“There is no doubt we are underdogs and we haven’t been that for a while. It is not a bad thing, though.  We have got to look at this tie and at some point we have to have our players beating higher-ranked opponents.

“We are not playing against opponents that are ranked in the top 10 or top 20 in the world.  It is not unrealistic to think that if we had a really good day at the office, we could actually get through this one. 

“But we are going to have to play extremely well and our tactics will have to be spot on.  We have done a lot of research on them and have a lot of video footage.  It is just a question of trying to get out there and fight as hard as we can, play smart tennis and see where that can take us.”

Win or lose, Britain will play another Davis Cup tie at some point later this year.  You sense the aim now for Smith’s team is not to undo all the hard work of last year and retain their position in Group One.  Murray’s participation is key in that and Smith is hopeful that he shall have his star player back for next time.

Smith said: “For these top guys, especially someone like Andy who is featuring in the latter stages of just about every event he plays, it is going to be a brutally tiring year but let’s see where this tie goes and I’ll have another conversation with him.

“But he certainly really enjoyed playing the last couple of matches and is definitely open to playing in the future, so fingers crossed he will play the next one.”

Wednesday, 1 February 2012


For Judy Murray, Israel holds happy memories.

This was the place where, in 2005, she witnessed her youngest son, a 17-year-old Andy Murray, show an early sign of his future promise when he teamed up with David Sherwood to achieve a famous Davis Cup doubles win for Great Britain in Tel Aviv against the established Israeli pairing of Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram.

“What I remember specifically about that is how noisy the Israeli crowd were, which is normal in Davis Cup, and apparently they are the same in Fed Cup,” says Judy, who has returned to the country this week to do more than just watch a match of tennis.

As the new AEGON GB Fed Cup team captain, Judy has a chance to show this week that there is more to her than just being the mother of Andy.  Most of us knew that anyway (if you are a Twitter follower of hers, you will know what I am talking about), but try telling that to those who have solely formed an opinion of a woman they only ever see camera shots of, showing her cheering and fist-pumping as her sons compete on-court.

This is a job which she feels perfectly suited to.  For years, she accompanied British juniors to tournaments in all corners of the country.  And as she chats at the team hotel in stunning surroundings – the view extends across the Red Sea over to the mountains of Jordan basked in glorious sunshine – she can’t quite believe the position in which she finds herself.

“I am certainly pinching myself right now; the hotel is fantastic,” she says.  “I’ve done the rounds of the junior tournaments and always trying to save money for accommodation, and we’re in the fortunate position where we are able to benefit from super surroundings like this.  It’s an absolute pleasure to be here.

“For me, it’s a new experience in terms of captaining a British women’s team.  I have captained several junior teams in the past but it’s the first time working with an adult team and, of course, that is quite a different challenge, obviously because the players are older and because I came into the role quite close to the tie.”

The stakes are significantly higher this time.  Here, Judy leads her team of Elena Baltacha, Anne Keothavong, Heather Watson and Laura Robson, as Britain attempts to work their way up and out of the Europe/Africa Zone Group One stage for the eighth consecutive year.

Their chances have been aided by the draw.  Britain have been drawn in Pool C alongside the Netherlands, Israel and Portugal, and if they make it through the round-robin stage, will play a promotion play-off on Saturday, for which they have avoided a possible clash with Poland – who have world No.6 Agnieszka Radwanska - and Romania, generally seen as the two strongest teams in Eilat this week.

But this is regarded as a notoriously difficult section to progress from.  Even the presence of former world No.1 Caroline Wozniacki last year was not enough to prevent Denmark from suffering relegation.  Judy is hopeful that her side can earn a World Group Two play-off, possibly on home soil in April, but rightfully remains cautious.

 “I don’t think any of the matches will be easy as every team has got some very strong players,” she points out.  “We did a lot of scouting of our opponents during the Australian swing and we have a lot of footage and information.  We have been able to brief our girls very well on the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and hopefully prepare them as well as we can for what is ahead.

“I think we have a side capable of getting out of this group but it will be a difficult thing to do.  There are 15 teams in the group and only two will get the chance to get into a play-off for the next level.  It will be tough, but I think if everybody plays to their potential and stays healthy, then we have as good a chance as anybody else.”

Britain arrived last Thursday and preparations have went well, according to all.  The captain has been hard at work analysing video footage, and has been so focused on her job that she did not see any of her son’s epic five-set Australian Open semi-final match with Novak Djokovic last week.

Judy was courtside for Andy’s first few matches in Melbourne, but had to fly home early last week to be ready for her duties in Eilat.  A sacrifice perhaps, but one she feels is well worth it.

“I think if you are going to take on a role like this, you have to do it properly and you have to show the same commitment to the girls as you would hope they would show to you and the team” she says.

“For me, if I’m going to take it on, it’s just one of those things.  The ties are always at the beginning of February, it’s always going to clash with the Australian Open and I’ve seen Andy in a couple of finals there anyway, so I reckon if he’s going to win one of these things, it won’t make any difference whether I am there or not.”

The tweets and chat show that the British team appear to be a happy bunch.  Not that there wasn’t fun before under previous captain Nigel Sears, but the fact there is a roll-up dartboard in one of their rooms this year tells the story. 

But the real work begins today.

Monday, 16 January 2012


The first grand slam of the year is upon us and already the anticipation is high for the quality matches we will watch and the intriguing stories we will read over the next fortnight.  Coming so early in the year, the Australian Open always provides a storming start to the new tennis season.

Adding to the excitement is the fact that this is the first time in 20 years – since the 1992 Australian Open – that there have been six British players in the first round of an overseas grand slam.  For us British tennis watchers, the first day will be a busy one with all but one of them in action.

The Men’s Singles event, in particular, promises to be fascinating as we have indeed become accustomed to recently.  It is hard to see any other occurrence than the top four players reaching the semi-finals, but it is difficult to predict which one of these players will be leaving Melbourne Park in two weeks with the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup in their hand.


R1 – Paolo Lorenzi
R2 – Santiago Giraldo/Matteo Viola
R3 – Radek Stepanek (29)
R4 – Andy Roddick (15)/Milos Raonic (23)
QF – David Ferrer (5)/Janko Tipsarevic (9)

Djokovic returns to Melbourne as a very different prospect compared to 12 months ago.  Little did we foresee that the Serbian would produce one of the finest ever seasons by a player in the sport, winning three grand slams, seven ATP World Tour tournaments and becoming world No.1 for the first time in his career.

He would have been unhappy with the way in which he finished last year, though.  Suffering from a combination of injury and fatigue, he bowed out in the round-robin stage of November’s ATP World Tour Finals in London.

But after a period of rest on holiday in the Maldives, he was in good form to win the World Tennis Championship exhibition event in Abu Dhabi at the end of last month.  Some are concerned that he has not played a competitive match before the Australian Open but that did not appear to have an effect last year when he stormed his way to his second Grand Slam title in Melbourne.

Djokovic’s potential route to the semi-finals looks relatively trouble-free, although a 4th round match against the big-serving Canadian, Milos Raonic, could be tricky.  The 21-year-old currently sits at a career-high ranking of No.25 after winning the ATP 250 event in Chennai last week.


R1 – Alex Kuznetsov
R2 – Tommy Haas/Denis Kudla
R3 – Ivan Ljubicic (28)
R4 – John Isner (16)/Feliciano Lopez (18)
QF – Tomas Berdych (7)

Nadal may have ended the season on a high, clinching the Davis Cup for Spain with a dramatic win over Juan Martin Del Potro in Seville, but he will look back on his season in general with a feeling of disappointment.

It was a year in which Djokovic delivered some devastating defeats upon the Spaniard.  His last tournament win was at the French Open in June and there are still concerns about his right shoulder and his current level of passion for the game after comments made in London in November.

His straight-sets semi-final loss to Gael Monfils in Doha last week merely served to increase the level of doubt surrounding his chances of victory in Melbourne this month.  But, although he is fourth-favourite with the bookmakers, it would be unwise to dismiss his chances completely given what we have seen from the ten-time Grand Slam champion in the past.

A Nadal who may not be at 100% is still more than capable of reaching the semis, although if Tomas Berdych reaches the quarter-finals and is hitting well off both wings like we know he can, then he could provide a real test for Nadal.


R1 – Alexander Kudrayavtsev
R2 – Eric Prodon/Andreas Beck
R3 – Jurgen Melzer (31)
R4 – Alexandr Dolgopolov (13)/Fernando Verdasco (22)
QF – Mardy Fish (8)/Juan Martin Del Potro (11)

Federer finished last season in a blaze of glory, winning consecutive titles in Basel, Paris and London to make-up for a year in which he would have hoped to have at least added one more grand slam title to his total of 16.

In that period of four weeks in November, the 30-year-old showed that he is not ‘past it’ as some might have told you.  His days of domination may be over but he is still capable of producing outstanding tennis to beat every single player on tour.

His performances against Djokovic and Nadal in the recent Abu Dhabi exhibition event may have been disappointing and his withdrawal from Doha due to a back injury last week was concerning, but reports from Melbourne are that Federer is feeling good again and is practicing with full intensity.

Some may question what motivation the 16-time Grand Slam champion has at this stage of his career, but 2012 has a lot for him to look forward to.  The Olympics and the Davis Cup can still provide new lines for his CV and he is still so keen to improve his Grand Slam tally.

Recent years have shown us, though, that he can be vulnerable nowadays in the Grand Slams.  His defeats to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Djokovic at Wimbledon and the US Open respectively were prime examples.

A semi-final appearance for Federer is a safe bet, though, in my opinion.  Like Nadal, the quarter-finals could provide a good test with a potential match against Mardy Fish or Juan Martin Del Potro, but he should progress to a semi-final Grand Slam match against Nadal for the first time since the 2005 French Open.


R1 – Ryan Harrison
R2 – Xavier Malisse/Edouard Roger-Vasselin
R3 – Alex Bogomolov Jr. (32)
R4 – Gael Monfils (14)
QF – Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (6)

Once again, another year passed without Andy Murray claiming that elusive first grand slam title, but the 24-year-old can look back on his best ever season with pride as he became only the seventh player in the Open era to reach the semi-finals of all four grand slams in the same calendar year.

Appointing Ivan Lendl as his new coach on Hogmanay was remarkable news to bring in the New Year.  Many feel this could be the final piece in the jigsaw puzzle as Murray looks for that extra edge to claim what would be a truly momentous achievement in British sport.

The newspaper reports from Australia over the past week have all contained good vibes about the Murray-Lendl hook-up and after winning the Brisbane International last week, it appears that Murray could not really be much better prepared for his fortnight in Melbourne.

Out of the top four players, the general consensus is that Murray has the toughest potential route of the lot.  Doha finalist Gael Monfils is a possible opponent in the fourth round and Tsonga, who beat Monfils in Doha last week, is arguably the toughest quarter-final match any of the top four seeds could have got.

For just the fifth time in the 23 Grand Slams they have both played, Murray and Nadal are not in the same half of the draw.  Instead, the Brit can expect a semi-final against Djokovic.

From then on, I am going to refrain from making any further predictions.  It’s time to sit back and enjoy what promises to be a fascinating fortnight of Grand Slam tennis from Down Under.

Sunday, 15 January 2012


If there was an award for the unluckiest player in tennis, then Jamie Baker would surely be in contention.

This past week, the 25-year-old-from Glasgow should have been in Melbourne attempting to qualify for the Australian Open.  Instead, he is at the National Tennis Centre in London recovering from yet another injury in what has been a career beset by setbacks.

After a narrow loss in his first match of the season in qualifying for the ATP event in Chennai on New Year’s Eve, the Scottish No.2 was forced to fly back home after suffering a recurrence of the abdominal muscle strain he suffered from at various points last year.

“To be honest, I feel a bit sick about having to miss the Australian Open again,” he said.  “The last time I played it was when I qualified [in 2008], and the whole idea of continuing to play for the last six months of last year was for the very goal of getting back into the grand slams, so it is hard to even put into perspective the disappointment.”

Although there is never a good time to be hit by injury, Baker is unfortunate in that his setbacks have come along at the cruellest of times.

After reaching a career high ranking of 211 and achieving a number of promising results at the start of 2008, Baker contracted the rare blood disorder, Immune Thrombocytopenic Purpura (ITP), and spent three days in intensive care.  But he fought back and was heading back towards the top 250 in March 2010 before he tore ligaments in his ankle ahead of a Davis Cup tie in Lithuania.

An impressive run of form in the second half of last year, though, has seen him reach No.238, which is his highest ranking since contracting ITP.  But this latest setback, which is likely to rule him out of next month’s Davis Cup tie against the Slovak Republic at Braehead, will further test his resolve.

“It is pretty horrible,” he said.  “The first time with the illness, I really felt I was on my way to making a decent career and equally this time, I am not quite ranked as high but I feel like my form is good, I have had a few good wins and with the amount of work and what I have been through to get back to that point, I feel like I have put myself in touching distance again of having another opportunity to do it.

“Opportunities in sport do not come around that often, but you hope that you actually get the opportunity to take advantage of those opportunities and I feel like I haven’t even had the chance to blow it; that is the frustrating part.  Listen, I am not alone as there are so many players in different sports that get injuries.  It is not a big conspiracy from the world on me, even though it does feel like that sometimes.

“I am well aware of these setbacks now and it is obviously not the same as having a setback when you are 19 or 20 years old.  I am 25 and every one of these tournaments that go by, you really feel like you have missed it.”

Before Chennai, Baker had never felt in better shape.  After practicing with Andy Murray on several occasions last year, the world No.4 invited Baker to Miami last month to join him for one of his infamous off-season physical training blocks.  “It was full-on but it was fantastic,” said Baker.  “It would have been an absolute running start this year for me if I was uninterrupted.

“Andy is now in a position where he is physically an absolute giant.  He is very intimidating to look at, he is very strong, he is as fit as anyone and is right up there with the very best athletes.

“The amazing thing for me is the quality of his play; it is very different to anything really.  Just actually sparring with him, the amount of learning that goes in to stay in a rally, to hit the right shot at the right time against him because if you don’t, you’re dead.”

Whilst in Miami, Baker met Murray’s new coach, Ivan Lendl, and the hook-up between the two is one which Baker feels could give his compatriot the extra edge he is looking for.  “For Andy, it’s all about getting over that last hurdle which is literally one match,” he said.  “It’s that final and the edge, the one or two percent which is needed.

“Andy is searching for the answer for that and has gone for the experienced guy who has been in the position where he lost his first four grand slam finals and then came back to win eight after that, so I think in terms of what he has been through, Andy has looked at that carefully and I think he can take a lot from it.”

While Murray attempts to win that elusive first grand slam title in Melbourne over the next fortnight, Baker will continue his recovery process.  Although he is unsure of his return date, he hopes it will be within the next six weeks and is still hopeful of attaining his goals, which include a potential appearance at the 2012 Olympics in London.

“I have never had my ranking within the top 200 so that is definitely within my sights,” said Baker.  “It’s a big year as it is an Olympic year and it is very likely that the second highest ranked British player will get a spot in the draw, so that would be a big thing to achieve.  There is one guy [James Ward] ahead of me for that but if I put a good run together between now and then, you never know.

“I had some good wins at the end of last year which have given me confidence and I have had some great exposure to the very best in the world, so if I can get back on court as quickly as possible, hopefully some of these memories and feelings will still be there and it hopefully won’t take me too long to improve again.”

With the majority of Baker’s ranking points to be defended in the second half of this year, a place for the Scot in the Olympics is achievable.  And who could argue that, after all he has been through, he does not deserve it?

**This is an extended version of the piece which appeared in the Herald on Saturday 14 January 2012**