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11/01/2008 No.32
Dan Roebuck
Friday January 11, 2008
  Bookies fret over cracking form of Britain's revitalised No1

Andy Murray's promising start to the season has put bookmakers on edge ahead of the Australian Open as bettors look to back the man they hope will give Britain its first male grand slam tournament winner since 1936.

Murray's success in the Qatar Open last weekend prompted every layer to cut the Scot to win in Melbourne and an early defeat in the Kooyong Classic this week has not seen the odds pushed back out. "Murray looked very impressive in Qatar and we're keeping a close eye on him as we expect he will be well backed in Australia," said Ladbrokes' spokesman Robin Hutchison.

Prior to Murray's Doha victory, the fourth ATP Tour title of his career, the British No1 was available at 25-1 to win the first slam of the season, and touched 33-1 with some firms in the autumn. Now the best you will find is 16-1 (general), and that may change again after odds compilers study the draw this morning. Last weekend's victory over Stanislas Wawrinka ensured he will not face a top-four player until the quarter-finals at Melbourne Park. And if he can avoid Roger Federer, Murray, who has been seeded nine, looks a cracking each-way bet even if his odds shorten a couple of points.

Much has been said about the change of surface at the Australian Open, which has been switched from Rebound Ace to Plexicushion, more similar to the US Open. Some players have suggested the new surface is slower after practising and playing on it although it may speed up as the court wears. One thing is for certain: previous form at Melbourne Park can be discarded, because no one knows quite how it will play now.

The same cannot quite be said for Federer. The top seed and world No1 drifted to 4-6 after he pulled out of the Kooyong Classic this week with a stomach virus before he was backed in to 8-13 (Paddy Power and William Hill). It remains likely that he will be in top condition for a tournament he has won three times, including the last two.

Federer is 7-1 (Sky Bet) to win the grand slam this season but once again he will have to find a way to beat the man who has his number on clay, Rafael Nadal, to take the title at Roland Garros. Nadal, seeded second in the Australian Open, is third-favourite in the betting at 10-1 with Betfred and Ladbrokes. Federer is the man to beat in Melbourne - but at short odds, on a new surface and having not played this year, he is left out of our staking plan.

Given his late 2007 form, when he won back-to-back Masters Series titles, David Nalbandian would have been one to consider but a back injury forced him out of the Kooyong Classic and odds of 12-1 (Ladbrokes and VC Bet) look prohibitive. Novak Djokovic is seeded three but lies behind Federer in the outright betting at 8-1 (Ladbrokes). The Serb would rate as a decent punt if he reproduces the sort of form he showed to defeat Andy Roddick (25-1 generally in Australia), Nadal and Federer in successive rounds to win the Masters Series Canada title last August.

Justine Henin is the 6-4 (Coral and Paddy Power) favourite to win the women's singles. It might be argued she should be shorter in the betting given her current 27-match unbeaten run and 2007's record cash haul of $5,429,586 (£2,775,000) and 10 tour titles. She was in action in the final of the Medibank International against Svetlana Kuznetsova in Sydney last night, so by now may have won her first tournament of the season.

The Belgian missed last year's Australian Open due to the break-up of her marriage but won it in 2004. And with the defending champion, Serena Williams, the 11-2 (Blue Square ) second-favourite, struggling with a knee injury, Henin is tipped to win a second successive grand slam event after taking the US Open title in September. Kuznetsova, seeded two, looks attractively priced at 22-1 (Paddy Power). The new surface should suit her and she is the best each-way bet.

Justine Henin to win the women's singles at 6-4 (Coral);
Andy Murray, each-way, in the men's singles at 16-1 (general);
Svetlana Kuznetsova, each-way, in the women's singles at 22-1 (PP)
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