Jamie Baker

NEWS, VIEWS AND GOSSIP FROM QUEEN’S CLUB

LONDON – As I walked from Barons Court tube station, feeling the buzz of excitement, I was pleased to dodge the long train of tennis fans snaking their way around Queen’s Club for ground passes and head straight for the dizzy heights of the media gazebo. I was immediately distracted by a dashing familiar stranger directly in front of me – former Wimbledon champion, Pat Cash. It never fails to amaze me how many famous faces you will see mingling with the public at both Queen’s and Wimbledon. That’s what I love about these tournaments.

While waiting for my press pass, BBC Commentator and Andy Murray’s former coach, Mark Petchey surprisingly needed to give his name to the girl behind the counter. Two famous commentators spotted and I hadn’t even entered the grounds yet.

I was led to the media centre directly behind centre court, shown where the press seats were situated and was greeted by the lovely Sue Barker, ex Davis Cup Captain, John Lloyd, commentator John Inverdale and former British No. 1, Annabel Croft congregating in the bar area – how surreal!

I found my way through the maze of stairs and corridors to the press seats to watch the first match on centre – Britain’s wild card entry, Jamie Baker versus Denis Istomin. Baker, ranked No. 254 in the ATP World Tour rankings failed to get any sort of grip on the match or the slippery grass surface as he lost 6-1, 6-4, falling no less than three times on his backside, repeatedly chastising his shoes for letting him down. In the post match press conference, he looked a little forlorn as he mentioned the difficulty of “stepping up to the level of the player” he was up against. It remained to be seen whether Brits, James Ward and Alex Bogdanovic would fare any better.

During the second set of Baker’s match, I couldn’t help but notice a tanned and gorgeous Novak Djokovic strolling nonchalantly to the practice courts beneath us – knowing how close you can get to the players practicing, I rejected the nonchalance and nearly broke my leg rushing down the several flights of stairs in heels to get a prime position to watch my favorite player’s tomfoolery on the beautiful grass.

He didn’t fail to disappoint with his series of jokes, trick shots and a well timed shirt change! I wished I’d brought my tennis gear and trainers, as I have a feeling he could have sneaked me on court for a quick rally or two – well, maybe in my dreams!

After the Djoker sadly left the practice courts, I wandered back to the press seats to see if Britain’s James Ward could fare any better. He was against stiff opposition in the form of American Robby Ginepri, who looked a little incongruous in his colored shorts and shirt on the grass. Ward put up a decent display and should have had a convincing 5-2 lead in the second set if he’d held his serve after breaking the American in the sixth game, but instead he allowed Ginepri to come back and secure a 6-3, 7-5 victory. Ward spoke of his relationship with the new British Davis Cup Captain, Leon Smith in the post match press conference, revealing, “I’ve been in contact with Leon the whole time I was in America. I was away for seven weeks. E-mails, text messages, BBM, everything. Since I’ve been back, he’s been to see me practice a lot, and I’m looking forward to working with him.”

A fellow journalist told me the Murray brothers were training on an outside court in preparation for their doubles match later that evening, so I nipped out of the media centre to watch Britain’s top hopeful. When I arrived I barely recognized his brother Jamie, who appeared to have had an argument with his hairdresser, as he was sporting a pretty horrific crew cut fit for the army. Apparently Andy commented on Twitter, saying he hoped Jamie had kept the receipt – who said he doesn’t have a sense of humour?

Team Murray were on good form as they practiced varying volley to ground stroke drills to a heaving crowd. A Spanish coach tried to get them off the court early – on home turf – adios! French maestro, Richard Gasquet was due on Centre court so I left the Murrays to it and headed back once again up the stairs to the press seats – who said being a reporter wasn’t hard work?

Eleventh seed, Gasquet faced Japan’s Kei Nishikori, who turned out to be no push over in a 6-3, 6-3 victory for the Frenchman, whose glorious backhand was really a sight to be seen first-hand. Gasquet often needed a translator to answer journalist’s questions, but revealed he believes the French have had such a great tradition on grass due to “good technique” and the talent needed to succeed on grass rather than clay.  No one could ever say he lacks talent, but it remains to be seen if he will ever weave his way like a cobra to the top ten again – his highest ranking was No. 7, but is now placed at No. 45.

Britain’s No. 2, Alex Bogdanovic was up next after getting through the qualifying rounds to play Bulgarian former Wimbledon junior champion, Grigor Dimitriv, currently ranked 360 in the ATP World rankings. Bogdanovic looked comfortable in front of his home crowd winning the first set convincingly 6-4, but lost the second 6-3. Rain stopped play at 2-1 in the third. If Bogdanovic loses the third, then Murray will be the only Britain left in the tournament – a situation he is very familiar with.

For the past eight years, a first round defeat at Wimbledon for Alex Bogdanovic following wild card entry has been as predictable as rain stopping play, but he still must have been a little bemused that he had been left out of the All England Club’s first batch of wild cards along with being denied one for the Aegon Championships at The Queen’s Club this week. He has also stubbornly refused to rejoin the Davis Cup fold following his miserable performances in the past. I really do hope that tomorrow brings some much needed luck for Alex and sunshine instead of rain for my second day reporting for www.TennisGrandstand.com Watch this space for more news, views and gossip from London.

Melina Harris is a freelance sports writer, book editor, English tutor and PTR qualified tennis coach. For more information and contact details please visit and subscribe to her website and blog at http://www.thetenniswriter.wordpress.com and follow her twitter updates via http://www.twitter.com/thetenniswriter.   She is available for freelance writing, editing and one to one private teaching and coaching.

Ascione Continues to Rise While Zahalova Strycova Turns Back the Clock

The challenger circuit this week saw a mixture of new old and faces hoisting up the trophies this week. Two young players on the men’s side recorded their first tournament wins on the challenger circuit, while a former breakout star on the WTA Tour took a big step in moving back to that level by winning her first singles title since 2004.

First, to the men’s side. In Cherbourg, Frenchman Thierry Ascione delighted the home crowd by winning the $50,000 event 6-4 7-6 over Kristian Pless of Denmark. The 27 year old has been hovering just inside the world’s top 100 for several months, but the strong form he showed by only losing one set this week shows that Ascione might be ready to compete exclusively on the ATP Tour. Despite the loss in the final, Pless can still take comfort in the fact that this was his best tournament in several months. After going 13-12 on the challenger circuit last fall, Pless, who cruised to the finals without losing a set began to rediscover the form that saw him reach a career high ranking of 65 back in 2002. He’ll head to Indian Wells next, where he lost in the first round of the main draw last year.

At the $35,000 Volkswagen Challenger in Wolfsburg, Louk Sorensen became the first Irishman to win a challenger in well over a decade. He came through the qualifying rounds to prevail 7-6 4-6 6-4 in a thrilling final over Farrukh Dustov of Uzbekistan. For Sorensen, who now lives and trains in Germany, the win pushes him into the top 250 for the first time in his career and will almost guarantee a place into the qualifying draw at Roland Garros. The result of the final likely came down to match toughness; Dustov was competing in his first event of the year while Sorensen had already contested 17 matches in 2008.

The $35,000 Challenger Providencia in Santiago featured two young South American players who are both playing the best tennis of their careers. In the end, Thomaz Bellucci of Brazil came through and won 6-4 7-6 over Eduardo Schwank of Argentina. For the 20 year old Bellucci, it was the first challenger title of his young career. Having competed in over 30 events in the last 12 months, the majority of them on clay, Bellucci’s vast experience on the red dirt make him a likely candidate to begin to break through at the ATP level during the spring season. Both Belucci and Schwank are scheduled to compete at challenger events over the next two weeks in Bogota and Salinas.

On the women’s side, it hasn’t been an easy few years for Barbora Zahalova Strycova. In her rookie year on tour back in 2004, she made the transition from the juniors to the pros look effortless with results that included a 4th round finish at Indian Wells and a semifinal showing at a WTA Tour event in Guangzhou. However, Strycova quickly fell out of the top 100 and has yet to regain the level that took her to a career high of #55. However, her win this week at the $25,000 event in Fort Walton Beach is a strong statement towards her commitment to regaining that old form. The 6-3 5-7 7-6 win in the final over American teenager Melanie Oudin gave Strycova her first challenger title in four years. Despite the loss, 2008 has gotten off to a promising start for Oudin; in her only other event of the year, she reached the semifinals at the $25,000 tournament held last week in Clearwater.

On the futures circuit this week, several men were able to score back-to-back tournament victories. Jamie Baker of Great Britain won his second title in a row in Harlingen, Alexander Satschko of Germany did the same in New Delhi, and Jeremy Blandin of France made it a clean sweep of the two events in Benin City. On the women’s side, Ukrainian teenager Anastasia Kharchenko also made it a clean sweep of the two $10,000 events held in Benin City this month. Michaela Johansson of Sweden more than lived up to her billing as top seed at the $10,000 event in Wellington as she stormed through the field with the loss of just 18 games in five matches; she’ll look to do the same at the next $10,000 event in New Zealand, which will be held this week in Hamilton.

The spotlight on the challenger circuit turns over to the women this week with the $50,000 challenger event held in Las Vegas. All of the seeds at this event are ranked among the world’s top 100, while the qualifying draw features several notable players on the comeback trail including Sesil Karatantcheva, Mirjana Lucic, and Elena Bovina. On the men’s side, Martin Vassallo Arugello leads the way at the $125,000 event in Bogota, while Yen-Hsun Lu of Taipei is the top seed at the $35,000 event in Kyoto.

No chance for GB after Andy’s AWOL

This weekend’s Davis Cup tie between Argentina and Great Britain was always going to be difficult. Since that glorious weekend in late September when Tim Henman bowed out of the game after sending his country back into the higher echelons of the competition, Argentina have been looming.

The joy soon turned to a knowing dread that all the hard work would ultimately be in vain against a squad boasting one of the most formidable and compatible Cup teams.

Nalbandian, Canas, Chela and Monaco all ranked within the top 25 and all except Nalbandian clay court specialists the surface on which the tie would be played.

Of course, since then the Argentines have also been weakened after the injury/loss of form of Canas, Chela and most recently Monaco who sustained an ankle injury last week in the Movistar Open in Chile.

The revised South American squad now includes lower ranked players like Agusten Calleri (41), Jose Acasuso (50) and 31-ranked doubles player Sebastian Prieto.

As flimsy as this may be against any other team, the GB outfit, without the services of main talisman Andy Murray is now the least impressive set of players in the group. Yes doubles maestro and disgruntled sibling Jamie Murray will prove invaluable but it is Alex Bogdanovic who is ranked the highest of the UK’s competitors. At 188 in the world Bogdanovic rests below no less than 19 Argentine players.

Jamie Baker and Davis Cup debutant Ross Hutchins will play some superb tennis despite being undoubtedly awed by the occasion and stature of their opponents, but the result is a foregone conclusion.

Once again the lack of commitment to an increasingly unimportant tournament and indeed the struggling state of British tennis when compared to every other nation in the world will be agonisingly exposed.