First-round Davis Cup play among the sixteen world group nations, February
4-6, yielded two memorable engagements. The U.S. win over Zimbabue in Harare
produced dimensions of high drama, while the Aussie escape at Zurich was
closer still. Both encounters merit our review.
USA 3, ZIMBABUE 2
It seemed likely at the outset that Andre Agassi--the world's number one
player and recent winner of the Australian Open--would capture two singles
matches for the Americans. Indeed, as expected, Agassi won both of his
starts, competing superbly. The American superstar overcame excellent
opponents and his own nearly disabling sickness the third day.
Both squads thus understood that the team outcome rested on the ability of
the Zimbabue team to win the other three matches--the doubles match and both
singles matches against Chris Woodruff. Zimbabue had two important
advantages--the partisan crowd, and the unfamiliarity of the Americans with
playing at high elevation (5,500 feet).
Zimbabue had three solid singles and doubles performers--Byron Black, Wayne
Black, and Kevin Ullyett. Byron Black and Ullyett had both defeated Woodruff
in 1999 meetings without loss, and Wayne Black had played extremely well at
the Australian Open the week before, having reached the finals of the doubles
and nearly defeated an off-form Sampras in singles. Of the three, Byron
ranked highest in singles, Wayne second. In doubles, Byron and Ullyett were
each most comfortable in right court, Wayne in left. Thus it was decided that
the brothers should play singles, while Ullyett and Wayne would play doubles,
even though Byron is a former world's number one in doubles. The arrangement
would give Byron a day of rest before the third-day singles.
In their first-day encounter, it initially seemed that Woodruff was stronger
than Byron. The American seemed clearly able to serve and drive the ball with
superior power. The first-set score, however, reached six games all. In the
tiebreaker Woodruff fell behind early, just missing the lines with several
attacking shots, and the set went to Byron after a discouraging forehand
error by Woodruff. After that, Byron's game continued to tighten, as the
veteran Davis Cupper showed excellent mobility, good margins for error in
shotmaking, and occasional forays to the net. Woodruff hit many fine winners
but also more than double his opponent's unforced errors, including a
surprising number of wild hits. The Zimbabue player won the match in straight
Probably the best-played match of the meeting was the doubles, where Wayne
Black and Ullyett competed brilliantly in defeating Americans Rick Leach and
Alex O'Brien. I watched with great interest, as I had come to know all four
players in covering the ATP World Doubles in Hartford last fall. The
Leach-O'Brien partnership seemed an ideal pairing, though the two men,
surprisingly, had never before been partners. During the pressure-packed
fifth set, the Zimbabue pair seemed to grow in confidence as their
superiority in close-in quickness and agility became more pronounced.
At the end it was Leach-O'Brien who faltered. With Leach serving at 40-15,
the Americans were one point from reaching six games all. But in just two
minutes, everything changed. In four very short points, the Americans failed
to hit another shot in court except for serves. Ullyett drove a serve return
past a surprised O'Brien, Leach dumped a first volley into the net as Ullyett
feinted, and Ullyett ripped another serve return down the line. Facing match
point, Leach's sliced second serve lacked enough overspin to bite into the
thin air, flying long for a disastrous double-fault.
Agassi's courageous win over Byron squared the tie at two matches all. The
deciding fifth match began well for the U.S., when Woodruff took the first
set and led Wayne Black by a service break in the second. Both players stayed
mainly in back court as Woodruff hit occasional power winners or narrow
errors. But things slipped away from the American, including a set point
narrowly missed, and in the ensuing tiebreaker Woodruff's errors in attacking
cost him the set. So from virtually two sets up, Woodruff was now even at one
set all. When Wayne then took an early break in the third set things looked
bad for the Americans.
Perhaps Wayne Black was tiring from his ordeal with Agassi the first day, his
five sets of doubles the second, and Woodruff's heavy hitting on this date.
Black's second serves now lost some of their weight, and more and more of his
ground strokes found the net. Then too there was an unmistakable turnaround
by Woodruff, who again began to deliver heavy, accurate serves and forehands.
The American, playing well within his zone of peak performance, took six
straight games to claim the third set and then swept on to an early break in
the fourth. A now-slower Wayne Black kept fighting, but Woodruff's strong
serve was always there when needed. The Tennessean won, 6-4 in the fourth.
The American triumph had been hard-earned. The team captain, John McEnroe,
helped his players overcome the noisy surroundings and had kept his pressure
on the umpire largely within acceptable bounds. Woodruff deserved great
credit for his third-day win under enormous pressure, and the captain's role
in helping this happen was probably real. Agassi was magnificent.
The Zimbabue players fought intelligently and well. The sequence of matches
had been unfortunate for them, for a fresh Wayne Black probably would have
defeated Woodruff the first day, before the American gathered himself amid
the difficult conditions. The third-day deciding match, then, would have
pitted Woodruff against a rested Byron Black.
The weekend gave Americans a benevolent glimpse of the nation Zimbabue,
formed in 1980 of once white-ruled Rhodesia. The name Zimbabue is from a
prehistoric culture known from its stone ruins and relics. During the Cup
matches tennis fans, black and white, joined in encouraging their team,
noisily and seemingly good-naturedly. The drums and costumed dancers, and the
presence of the reigning Miss Universe, all added to the remarkable milieu.
AUSTRALIA 3, SWITZERLAND 2
Disputes between the Swiss players and the nation's tennis authorities cost
the host team their long-time Cup stalwart, Rosset. Meanwhile the defending
Cup champions assembled a solid singles line-up. Both Lleyton Hewitt and Mark
Philippoussis had achieved 1999 rankings in the world's top twenty, both were
now experienced Davis Cup warriors, and both had done well in the recent
January season Down Under. It scarcely seemed to matter that the Woodys were
absent, as the Australians could draw from an array of fine doubles players.
The Aussies were solid favorites in each of the five matches.
Things began inauspiciously for the favorites, however, when Swiss player
George Bastl won the first set from Hewitt, 6-4. Bastl is a 24-year-old
right-hander, born in Chicago, who broke into the world's top hundred last
year mainly competing on the challenger circuit. Hewitt soon turned the match
around, however, and swept through the next three sets. Basil Stafford in
Melbourne reported that Hewitt was superb throughout the tie, "full of hustle
and aggression," the sort of player that Basil particularly admires.
Philippoussis likewise started his match slowly, reaching one set all. It
seemed likely that the husky Australian, playing on a favorable indoor court,
would, like Hewitt, now close out his Swiss opponent. Roger Federer, 19, had
been a top junior star, ranking first internationally in 1998. Federer drives
the ball very well, but when I watched him in Washington last year he seemed
temperamentally unfit for high-presssure competition. Playing youthful Bjorn
Phau of Germany, Federer allowed himself to become upset by Phau's unusual
shot selection and solid play. The Swiss player competed poorly and lost in
quick, straight sets. But in Zurich against a Philippoussis suffering from
the flu and playing lethargically, Federer was able to win the third and
fourth sets, each 6-4, surprising the world and equalizing the team
engagement at one match all.
The second-day doubles was even more stunning. As a disappointed Basil
Stafford saw it, it was "such a critical match and such an inept
performance." Yes, he wrote, Arthurs and Stolle were an untried combination
and there was some lack of understanding between them, but in reality, he
continued, the loss came from their poor returning of serve. Basil is a fine
sportsman, and I smiled at the chagrin evident when he wrote "Now I am sure I
would return badly too but I have the excuse of lacking talent." Thus
Federer-Manta captured the second win for the Swiss, and after two days, it
was Switzerland 2, Australia 1.
The final day began, Hewitt vs. Federer. The two teen-agers reached
one-set-all before Hewitt took the third-set tiebreaker and then the fourth
set 6-1. It was Switzerland 2. Australia 2.
Now, Philippoussis against Bastl. In each of the four matches to date, the
first two sets had been split and the winner had then taken the third and
fourth sets. Once again sets went one-all, and then it was the unheralded
Bastl who moved ahead, buoyed by strong crowd support. Again and again Bastl
forced the Australian to play one more return. Third set to Bastl 6-3. But
Philippoussis replied 6-3, struggling against both his flu and his opponent,
ending the pattern of four-setters. Then in the fifth set Philippoussis
raised his serving, putting 67% of his first serves into play (he served at
56% in the first four sets), delivering five of his 19 aces for the day.
Meanwhile Bastl committed his only three double-faults of the match. A
"nerve-wracked" Basil Stafford could relax only when his countryman ended
things, 6-4 in the fifth.
THE WORLD GROUP ELSEWHERE
The host nations were victorious in the other six world group meetings, all
of which were decided before the fifth match. Jiri Novak won two singles and
his doubles for Czech Republic in defeating a British team lacking the
injured Rusedski on indoor clay. Novak's straight-set win over Henman the
third day closed out matters. Novak's success matched my observations of his
excellent conduct before, during, and after his match at Hartford last fall.
Meanwhile host Russia, with Kafelnikov and Safin, won the first three matches
to defeat a Belgian team without Malisse. Also victorious in three matches
were Spain over Italy and Brazil over France, both on outdoor clay. Corretja
and Albert Costa won their singles for Spain, Kuerten and Meligeni for
Brazil. Kucera and Hrbaty swept Austria in three for Slovak Republic, while
Germany lacking an unwilling Kiefer defeated Netherlands lacking an injured
Krajicek. Tommy Haas won two meaningful singles matches.
As in years past, the grand Cup weekend transfixed tennis fandom and surely
kindled the imaginations of would-be future champions in the sixteen
competing nations. Simultaneously many group one nations competed with one
another for the right to challenge for membership in next year's world group.
The whole panorama took place two months earlier in the year than usual,
evidently adjusting to the coming of the Olympics in September. Coming only a
few days after the Australian Open, the timing prevented leisurely player
travel and preparation. The French and Australian teams, who competed in the
1999 finals only two months before, had little time to rekindle their
appetites for Cup competition, while for reasons of climate all but two of
the eight world group engagements were indoors.
The eight world group winners will pair off in the second round, 7-9 April.
Hosts Spain and Brazil will again be favored on outdoor clay, against Russia
and Slovak Republic, respectively. Germany's meeting with Australia outdoors
in Adelaide will be uninteresting unless Kiefer returns, as seems unlikely.
Finally, the Czechs will have little hope against Agassi and perhaps Sampras,
on indoor, presumably fast courts in Los Angeles.
Looking still farther ahead, the host-nation advantage will critically
influence the semi-final and final rounds. If as expected both Spain and U.S.
win in April, Spain will host the Americans in July. Although Corretja, Moya,
and Costa may be less invincible on red clay than they seemed a year or so
ago, Juan Carlos Ferrero, 20, seems on the verge of surpassing the familiar
Armada stars. Meanwhile a probable Brazil-Australia semi will be played in
Australia, unfortunately for the Brazilians who would be clearly favored on
Brazilian clay. In the final round, either Spain will host Australia; Brazil
will host Spain; U.S. will host Brazil, or Australia will host U.S.
I have been damaged before in expecting too much of the Armada, which this
year seems to hold the home-court advantages. U.S. prospects away from home
against both Spain and Australia would rest on the availability of a healthy
Sampras, a chancy eventuality. I like the depth and team-mindedness of the
Australians, whose chances rise if Pat Rafter returns to peak performance
from shoulder surgery. In my opinion the Aussies will repeat in 2000.
Strong favorites to retain their Fed Cup championship are the Americans, who
claim three of the top four in the WTA world rankings--Davenport and the
Williams sisters. A new world group format is being introduced this year,
after last year's competition had been spoiled by the absence of many top
This year's world group consists of twelve challenging nations along with the
defending champion U.S. The challengers are divided into three groups of four
nations. Each group will compete in round-robin play during the week of April
24. The three survivors will join the host U.S. team in playing the
semi-finals and final the week of November 20. Each competition will consist
of two singles and one doubles match, except that the final will be four
singles and one doubles.
The losing finalist last year, Russia, will host Group C, including France,
Belgium, and Australia. An array of young stars could appear--Mauresmo of
France, Henin and Clijsters of Belgium, Dokic and Molik of Australia, and, if
she returns to Cup play as expected, Kournikova of Russia. Veterans Tauziat,
Pierce, Halard-Decugis, and Testud, all in the world top twenty, give France
a potential depth of talent unmatched by the others.
A losing semi-finalist nation last year, Slovak Republic, will host Group B,
with Switzerland, Austria, and Czech Republic. Critical in the outcome here
will be the availability of Swiss stars Hingis and Schnyder, neither of whom
played Fed Cup in 1999. In their absence, an Austrian team of surprising
depth and headed by Barbara Schett should be favored. Slovak Republic adds
rising Nagyova to the team that lost last summer to Russia.
In Group A, 1999 semi-finalist Italy will host Spain, Germany, and Croatia,
presumably on clay. Neither Sanchez Vicario nor Martinez competed in 1999 for
Spain, but if these veteran warriors return Spain will be favored strongly.
Otherwise, Italy's Grande and Farina will be formidable at home.
The above meetings all seem competitively interesting, but if Davenport and
the Williamses are all healthy the only plausible threat to the U.S. in
November would seem a Swiss team led by Martina Hingis. Hingis owes much to
women's tennis, and a momentarily declining Fed Cup badly needs her presence.
If general interest in Fed Cup continues to fall, the next step downward
might be a single-weekend competition, U.S. vs. the World, like Ryder Cup--a
nice exhibition surely, but a sad substitute for the national team
competition needed to strengthen women in sports worldwide.
Finally, thank you ESPN2 and sponsors for a fine weekend of Davis Cup tennis