[Editor’s note: it’s only the second day of the year, and already I’m overtaxed/lazy.  So I outsourced my Noumea preview to friend, contributor, and general tennistico Jonathan Artman aka @jonnyboy613 on the Twitter.  I hope you enjoy his art(man)icle – please leave your praise/blame in the comments.]

 

The first week of the brand spanking new 2011 tennis season begins for the Challenger players in Nouméa, a French owned island which is actually nowhere near France. This beautiful island, part of New Caledonia, is part of the Pacific Ocean territories, and is just a short boat (or cruise ride, if you will), from Australia.

Whilst this mysterious island is still owned by France, the French have gradually released power over the island in favour of New Caledonia itself. Regardless, French is still the official language; in fact, less than 1 % of its inhabitants reported that they don’t know how to speak la Française. Now you may be wondering the significance of the geography of Nouméa; it is quite a fascinating place and like no other; it appears on the map nowhere near its genuine owners and the island even has its own New Caledonia football team, a part of FIFA since 2004. Its population is relatively small, at just under an estimated 250,000. The Nouméa tennis championships are not just clouded in mystery, it possesses some genuinely amusing stories, too. In 2009, the island suffered a deluge of highly unusual rain, which quite literally forced the 2009 doubles tournament to be “Cancelled Due to Rain”.

Rather like Cancun, the scenery is nothing short of spectacular, as is rather evident by the above image. This may lend the destination to a pure holiday resort, where professionals can play a bit of tennis during the week too. Far from it – the tournament has a proud heritage and Gilles Simon, once a Top 10 player in the ATP rankings, is a double champion, having won the tournament twice consecutively back in 2005 and 2006. Florian Mayer, the German, currently ranked 37 in the World, was the champion in New Caledonia last year, and crushed his final opponent Flavio Cipolla of Italy 6-3, 6-0. The Italian himself is not a stranger to success in Nouméa; he will have fond memories of his success 3 years ago in 2008 where he fought off the improving Swiss Stephane Bohli in straight sets to clinch one of the more coveted and unusual Challenger titles.

The lack of live scoring over the years for these mystifying Championships is perhaps not surprising considering its somewhat remote and remarkable location. Thankfully however, thanks to internet communications, we have access to the players who are turning up this year, and the match-ups that they have been placed in, so let’s take a look at the key fixtures of the first round that start on a fairly modest Monday’s play:

Gilles Muller (3) v Danai Udomchoke
 
The big serving lefty who hails from Luxembourg will face off against Danai Udomchoke, one of few notable tennis professionals originating from the nation of Thailand. Muller can be proud of what he has achieved for his country’s sporting reputation; he is by far the most successful male tennis player that is affiliated with Luxembourgish origin. He turned Pro exactly 10 years ago and once upon a time, he was ranked 59 but is now outside the top 100 and sits 134 in the ATP World rankings. In 2008 Gilles enjoyed a spectacular run in the US Open where he advanced to the Quarter Finals, which was a big shock at the time. His serve being his obvious main weapon, he can be a real handful for any player on his day; he is also one of a diminishing number of players that possesses a fancy two-handed backhand.

His opponent Udomchoke will turn 30 in August of this year. He was once ranked at no. 77 in the World and his best performance at a Slam was the 3rd round of the Aussie Open back in 2007. The Thai’s most recent Title was in Busan, South Korea, where he defeated up-and-coming Slovenian Blaz Kavcic in straight sets 6-2, 6-2 just a couple years ago.

Danai endured a rather miserable 2010 and is now ranked in the 400’s so he is sure to be itching to get back on the tennis circuit for 2011 and climb back up the rankings, where no doubt he feels his ability warrants. He did appear in the Bangkok ATP event in his home country, of course, but his Wildcard only took him as far as the first round where he lost to the ever impressive Finn Jarkko Nieminen in straight sets.

It would be foolish to expect too much from Muller’s opponent today on the back of a very disappointing 2010 season. Although Muller remains outside the top 100, he had a relatively successful season last year and he continues to hold his own against some top players; he took big John Isner, the American, to 3 very tight sets before succumbing to a harsh defeat. Muller went 40-23 (W-L) over the past 12 months, a highly respectable record indeed.

The Luxembourger should take this in straight sets barring any surprises. Both men possess plenty of experience but Muller should be able to find his groove early on, and if he brings the confidence from 2010 it should be a relatively straight forward task for the 27-year-old. For Danai Udomchoke, I expect it will be a case of hard work, determination and practise to get his career right back on track.

Marc Gicquel (4) v Vincent Millot
 
It should come as no surprise to see these two Frenchmen meet in what is a predominantly “French” tournament. Plenty of the natives have qualified or have been awarded wildcards for this luxurious destination’s event.
 
The highly experienced Gicquel will have been satisfied with his efforts in 2010, culminating in victory at the Open de Moselle indoors event in Rennes, France. The 33-year-old sits just outside the top 150 but was once in the lofty position of 37 in the rankings. Today he will face compatriot Vincent Millot, who has been around for 24 years on this planet (just so you know). Vincent played a lot of tennis in 2010 and finished up with figures of (27-32), which he will have been reasonably pleased with. He was no slouch on the hard courts and a notable scalp includes that one of Dustin Brown, the eccentric Jamaican-come-German who is notorious for his on and off-court superstitions and crazy mannerisms! That aside, Dustin is a very talented tennis player and possesses a serve that Ryan Harrison described as “one of the biggest he has ever seen”. Take note, young ones.

Millot should bring a decent challenge to his elder compatriot with his left-handed serve and variable groundstrokes. On his day, however, Marc Gicquel can really mix it with the best and he defeated a lot of seriously good young players on the Challenger circuit last year, including Igor Sijsling, the top seed of this event, who will not feature on Monday, Stephane Bohli, aforementioned, Tobias Kamke, who was awarded the Challenger player of the year award for his sensational rise in the rankings, and Ruben Bemelmans, who is beginning to establish himself in the upper echelons of the men’s professional game. Unfortunately for Millot, Gicquel has no problems facing lefties and is 7-3 in his last 10 encounters in such circumstances.

This oughtn’t be a walkover for Gicquel and surprises can happen where rustiness may be a factor, but look for the 33-year-old to come out in straights here.

Our other feature game sees David Guez (7) face off against Fritz Wolmarans of South Africa. Wolmarans particularly deserves a mention for his out-of-nowhere rise to prominence in the latter stages of the 2010 Challenger season. Usually plying his trade in the ITF Futures, Wolmarans enjoyed success in the American Challenger circuit where he drew plenty of plaudits for his big serving and powerful hitting. French journeyman Guez, plagued by inconsistent performances in 2010, will undoubtedly be faced by a genuine challenge in Wolmarans who will be eager to carry the momentum in to his new campaign. The 24-year-old’s success saw him rise to a career-high of 272 and he now sits at 275 in the World and is sure to build on that this term. His French opponent went 31-31 in 2010 meaning that he won and lost exactly 50% of his matches each – I would define this as a textbook example of inconsistent tennis. David finished his season at Loughborough, England, where he was walloped by Matwe Middelkoop (who is a rising young Dutchman), 6-2, 6-0.

It would only be a small shock if Wolmarans defeated his more experienced opponent but in order to fulfil a prediction, I will go for the big South African in straight sets. The Frenchman will need to show a fair bit more in 2011 to improve his ailing reputation.

Also of merit on Monday are matches between Flavio Cipolla and Matteo Viola, as well as Benoit Paire (5) v Sebastian Rieschick of Germany.

The all-Italian clash should be an interesting fixture considering the former’s history at this event. He clearly relishes playing in New Caledonia and has a real knack of playing well in the early stages of the season on this beautiful island. Unfortunately for him his heritage at Nouméa has been somewhat disregarded, in that he will be playing Viola on Court 7.

Benoit Paire is an exciting young Frenchman who had a successful 2010 and flew up the ATP rankings to a career-high and current ranking of 142. You might remember the 21-year-old for his accomplishments in the US Open where he fell to Feli Lopez in a 5 set epic. In July 2010 he reached his first Challenger Final but lost to the aforementioned David Guez. The man who hails from Avignon, home of the famous French nursery song, will play German Sebastian Rieschick, a lesser known 24-year-old who has reached a career-high ranking of 238 where he currently sits. The Frenchman should win this one in straight sets.

Josselin Ouanna will also feature on Monday’s programme in New Caledonia where he will play American Michael Yani. Ouanna fared admirably in 2010 and finished his season at the Bercy Masters where he battled well against Stan Wawrinka before falling to a by-no-means-shameful defeat.

More to come as the week progresses. Enjoy!

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