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**