*sings* On the third day of Christmas, Challenger Tennis brought to you: *unsings*

Two players playing, of course! It’s what we’re bringing to you on all twelve days of Christmas, in case you haven’t caught on yet (you’re a bit slow, aren’t you?).  Today is the third installment of our two-a-day, daily profiles of Players To Watch in the upcoming year. Let’s dive right in to today’s feast, shall we? I’m all for avoiding the usual pre(r)amble…

Well, I must say, I wasn’t planning on profiling this particular gentleman until later in the series, but the recent announcement that he’s received a wildcard into the ATP 250 Brisbane International pushed John Millman right onto today’s “2011 Players To Watch” docket. Might as well learn about the player you’ll be seeing (I hope) soon, no?

Truth be told – scandalous confession time! – Millman (aka “The Mailman” or “The Milkman”), was unofficially on my “Players to Watch” list all last year as well. But I’ll be doing the environmentally responsible thing here by recycling him this year. His results and his position also justify such an act.  John first appeared on my radar at the ’09 WC Playoffs, when he made the semis and had a series of very entertaining guest commentator stints in the booth with Rob O’Gorman and friends. With his bubbly demeanor (and his love of crème brulee), my friends and I dubbed him “The Giggling Mailman” and fully embraced this player with the engaging personality.

But “The Giggling Mailman” is someone who achieved some serious results this year. The 21-year-old (and 5 months) Mr. Millman turned in a super 40/22 W/L season which saw him break into the Top 200 for the first time, to a career high of #179 in October. Most impressive of all was his torrid month-long span from mid-September to mid-October, during which he went 14-1, winning the Australia F6 Futures as well as the Sacramento Challenger. In his run to the Sacramento title, John beat Julian Reister in R2 and straight-setted Robert Kendrick in the final, providing evidence that top-hundred talent may lurk just beneath his affable exterior.  He lost his last two matches in the States in October, however, undercut by a revenge-minded Reister (the worst kind of Reister) in Tiburon and the deadly combination of Lester Cook and shin splints in Calabasas.

I was lucky enough to see Millman play against another of my 2010 Players to Watch, Peter Polansky, in the final qualifying round of the US Open this year (he had beaten Marinko Matosevic 2-6 6-1 7-5 in the previous round, which I was not lucky enough to watch in person or otherwise). Though John eventually petered out as the sun set on the National Tennis Center (losing 3-6 6-4 0-6), he picked himself up and went on a nine-match winning streak in Australia soon afterward. And during the Polansky match, John won the hearts of the many fans who had gathered at Court 12 to watch (as it was the last match of the entire qualifying session) with his determined fightback in the 2nd set – and high fiving a ballkid at the net after running down a drop shot was a nice touch, too.

Millman currently occupies the #204 spot in the ATP World Rankings list, which is 102 spots higher than the one he occupied at the start of this year. Though he had a less-than-impressive result at the AO Wildcard Playoff, losing to James Duckworth 4-6 6-7(1) in R2, that hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm for the extremely likeable Queenslander’s 2011 prospects. As Tennis Hall of Famer and Tennis Australia national selector Todd Woodbridge said yesterday, John “has a phenomenal attitude and commitment to the game of tennis.” I look forward to seeing what The Mailman can deliver in 2011.

For now, though, you should look at the following two videos. This first one is the only I could find of John actually hitting a tennis ball. Sorry about that. I scoured the internet, too – visited the very scariest corners of YouTube and lived to tell the tale. But next time I see him I should take some video, as I had no idea footage was such a scarce commodity. Jeesh.

And even though there is not a single tennis ball hit in the next vid, I urge you to make it through to his superb off-the-cuff analysis of the entire AO Wildcard draw as it unfolded (including some great Sam Groth and Bernard Tomic burns):

Conclusion: it’s just impossible not to support this guy. Go ahead and try.

Oh, and speaking of the scary corners of YouTube – look what I found! That’s right: bonus Andrey Kuznetsov footage (which is tagged “Andrey Kuznetcov”, thus banishing it to the dirty backstreets of YouTubetown).  The racquet toss at :52 is the funniest I have ever seen:

Good stuff!

The next selection from my Players To Watch menu may surprise you, as he’s English. And no one group of tennis players has taken more guff or come under more negative scrutiny than the English boys have. But even though I’m often roundly mocked for doing so, I have not given up in the Search for Great Britain’s Next Top Tim. To surprise (and/or tease) (and/or frustrate) you even more, my pick isn’t even British #2 James Ward. He would be on my list, but J.Ward doesn’t fit my strict “under 23 years old” criteria; poor James missed it by 10 months or so – do give him my condolences if you see him, and tell him that I still believe in him. Thanks.

My next profile is of 20-year-old (and three months) British #4 Dan Cox, currently #326 on your ATP Rankings program. The former 31st-ranked junior in the world (in Jan ’08), the small-but-scrappy Englishman (who trained in Spain, but mainly on the plain) did John Millman five matches better in compiling a 45/22 record on the year.  Even more impressively, the Lincoln-born lad overcame a 9 win, 13 loss start to his 2010 campaign – during which he actually considered calling it quits – before finishing at a remarkably strong 36/9 W/L clip, racking up five Futures tournament wins along the way.

Though he stands only about 5′ 10”, there’s a lot of fight in this doggedly determined (and surprisingly speedy) righty with the 2HBH. He’s like a British Berankis, perhaps. And yes, I know I’m in great danger of overselling him with that comparison, but that’s what first came to mind when I first saw him play.

As his ranking is just outside of Australian Open qualifying cutoff (which sometimes has strayed into the #300’s), Cox plans to instead play two $15K Futures events in China, leading up to a $50K Challenger in Singapore. The good news about his poor start this year, is that he stands to pick up a lot of points in his Far Eastern venture if he can rack up some early results. And then, what do you know? He’ll quite possibly end the winter as British #3 with a spot on the Davis Cup team.

On to the videos! I’m not sure what to make of this first one (PLEASE tell me what you think in the comments below, so I can form a proper opinion on it), other than the fact it’s the best footage I can find of Dan actually hitting tennis balls, even if it’s almost three years old:

He’s got a dream, yo.

This next is a far-more-recent training video (just a few days old, I think) of Cox with two other Next Top Tims, Dan Smethurst and Ashley Hewitt (the hitting order is: Smethurst, Hewitt then Cox). Sure, he nets a few, but it’s worth sticking around to see his cheeky between-the-legs shot at the end:

And here he is actually playing an actual point in an actual match this past summer against Rudy Coco (whose name, whenever I see it, immediately triggers the song “Ruby Soho” in my head):

Anyway, that wraps up today’s edition (what? You wanted more?). So far, players from Russia, Belgium, the USA, the Netherlands, Australia and Great Britain have been represented. Which two countries shall join the hallowed fold on the 4th Day of Challenger Tennis Christmas? Which two players will be anointed the honor of being a 2011 Challenger Tennis Player to Watch? Tune in tomorrow and find out! (Or, better still, take a guess and/or tell me who it should be in the comments below.)

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