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Between The Lines
December 1, 2000 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Fed Cup, Davis Cup Review 2000

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Ray Bowers

Fed Cup 2000 produced interesting though hardly suspenseful competition. The new format for World Group play helped bring more top stars into the action, though the World's Number One by her absence plainly diminished the whole enterprise. Public interest seemed lukewarm, so that, sadly, the potentially large influence of Fed Cup in growing women's sports worldwide was not significantly advanced.

The twelve challenging nations of this year's World Group faced off in four-team round-robins in April. Three winners emerged, thereby advancing to join last year's champion, the U.S., in the Cup semi-finals later in the year at Las Vegas. Each head-to-head team contest consisted of two singles and one doubles match.

The most interesting round-robin was in Moscow, where the early favorite was a strong French squad lacking its highest-ranked player, Mary Pierce. In a midweek showdown France lost to Belgium when Tauziat lost to Kim Clijsters. But the Belgian team still needed to defeat Russia on the final day to avoid a three-way tie where France would lead in individual match victories. After splitting the singles with the Russians, Belgium won the doubles thus advancing to Las Vegas. Wasted during the week were three singles victories by Jelena Dokic in Australia's three 2-1 losses.

The round-robin at Bari, Italy, on clay, saw Spain's Fed Cup veterans Sanchez-Vicario and Martinez win over Italy, Germany, and Croatia. Both Sanchez-Vicario and Germany's Anke Huber produced 3-0 records in singles. Finally, in Bratislava, Czech Republic narrowly defeated Austria, Switzerland, and host Slovak Republic.

All other nations began the year as members of the zonal groups--the American, Asian, and Europe-African zones. The top (group-one) nations of each zone met in mid-May to determine three teams for promotion to next year's World Group. Hungary, Argentina, and Japan were the winners. Meanwhile the group-two nations met at a single location in each zone, competing for advancement to group-one membership next year. In all, 99 nations competed in the year's zonal and World Group play.

The four semi-finalist nations gathered at Las Vegas in late November. The U.S. team was the strong favorite, having two powerful singles players--Lindsay Davenport and Monica Seles, both in the world's top four. (The Williams sisters were not present.) In the opening match-up on Tuesday evening, Spain defeated Czech Republic when Sanchez-Vicario and Martinez carved three-set wins over younger and heavier-hitting opponents. The brilliance of the tennis was not matched by the size of the gallery, while the players seemed lost in the huge indoor arena.

Twenty-four hours later, the U.S. singles hitters defeated the Belgian teenagers. Seles overcame sickness to defeat Henin in straight sets, and Davenport, who hurt her left calf in the second set, narrowly won against Clijsters in three.

The Spain-U.S. final, consisting of four singles and one doubles match, began on Friday. Seles's power proved too much for Martinez in the opening match. But in the second match, favored Davenport met big trouble in Sanchez-Vicario. Too often, Davenport's rockets met the top of the net or landed just outside the lines. (The 2,000-foot desert elevation called for heavier-than-usual topspin when hitting all-out.) The Spanish star steadily blunted Davenport's power, seldom missing and taking the initiative if allowed an opening. The score reached 3-games-all in the third set. Then, inexplicably, Sanchez-Vicario netted two routine forehands, allowing Davenport the critical service break and the final set, 6-3. The U.S. thus took a 2-0 lead in matches with three matches to go. Then on Saturday, Davenport settled the issue with a fast victory over Martinez, winning the Cup for U.S.

The verdict supported what had seemed obvious all along--that the American team, playing on its preferred surface, would prove too powerful for any opponent (save perhaps Switzerland with Hingis). Considering that the Williams sisters should again be available for the U.S. team in the future, could it be that the extreme dominance of U.S. players makes Fed Cup now an unworkable idea? Indeed, the U.S. has by far the largest tennis population of all nations, and the participation of women in sports is more advanced there than in most places. Furthering the American advantage is the new Cup format, where the Cup defender is exempted from competing on hostile surfaces thus making it difficult for the European clay-court nations to unseat the Americans.

It seems likely, however, that the current extreme imbalance will ease over the long term as the activity of women in sports grows worldwide. The present circumstance is unprecedented, where three U.S. women rank in the world's top four and four in the top six. Indeed, in the decade now ending the U.S. won Fed Cup only three times even given the addition to the American side of European emigres Navratilova and Seles. Meanwhile Spain, advantaged on the clay courts often used under the old format, won the Cup five times, Germany and France each once.

Interestingly, the world's several new stars closest to the top are from countries other than the United States. Clijsters of Belgium, 17, as we noted, already made a strong mark in this year's Cup play. Elena Dementieva of Russia, 19, who did not play Fed Cup, defeated both Clijsters and Davenport at the Chase in November and was runner-up at the Olympics. Jelena Dokic of Australia, 17, as we noted, was undefeated in three Cup matches this year. Though Dokic's intention to retain Australian tennis nationality is unclear at present, all three nations--Belgium, Russia, and Australia--each claim a second teen-aged star not far behind the three headliners here named. Their further development should make Fed Cup, indeed all of women's tennis, very interesting next year.

Tennis is already an important force affecting societal attitudes toward women everywhere. Fed Cup, where males and females worldwide find themselves taking pride in the competitive efforts of their country's women-athletes, can contribute mightily.

DAVIS CUP

The sixteen nations of year 2000's World Group squared away in early February. Defending champion Australia narrowly survived against host Switzerland by winning both third-day's singles. The deciding match was a five-setter, won by Philippoussis over Bastl. Likewise the U.S. team overcame host Zimbabwe thanks to two Agassi victories and a narrow win by Chris Woodruff in the fifth match. Meanwhile the other six meetings were won by the host countries, Spain and Brazil winning on clay, Russia, Germany, and Czech and Slovak Republics winning indoors.

Round two took place in April. The host nations won all four engagements. Agassi and Sampras saved things for the U.S. by winning both third-day singles against the surprising Czechs. Australia won the first three matches against Germany, while Spain swept the singles against Russia. Brazil defeated Slovak Republic despite two singles wins by Hrbaty. Simultaneously in the zonal finals at eight other locations, eight nations earned the right to challenge for World Group membership in July. Spoiling the grand weekend was crowd misbehavior in Chile toward the visiting Argentines, which led to abandonment of play.

The July semis brought few surprises, as the host nations again advanced. Australia defeated Brazil, while the U.S., with Agassi and Sampras both absent, lost one-sidedly on Spanish clay. Meanwhile in promotion-relegation round play, four of the eight challengers won promotion to next year's World Group.

PREVIEW: AUSTRALIA VS. SPAIN

The Cup champion for year 2000 will be decided in early December when Australia and Spain meet on indoor clay courts in Barcelona.

In singles, Spain will draw from Corretja, Costa, and Ferrero, all baseliners of top ten quality when competing on clay courts. Hewitt and Rafter will represent the Aussies. Hewitt attained an excellent 8-3 mark at this year's biggest clay-court events (the Italian, German, and French Opens), while Rafter, who was 1-3 in these events this year, was 7-2 last year (he missed the German). The record, however, slightly favors Corretja, Costa, and Ferrero, whose combined record in the three Opens this year was 25-9. In the only head-to-head meeting across the groups at these events this year, Costa met and defeated Hewitt at Garros.

Mark Philippoussis, who contributed two singles victories in Australia's final-round triumph last year against France, will not be at Barcelona apparently because of ill feelings among the players. Basil Stafford in Melbourne praises Flipper's ability on clay, where slow conditions allow him to get in position to connect on his big groundies in a sustained way. Still, Basil believes that both Rafter and Hewitt are better under pressure. He recalls that John Fitzgerald, who will be Australia's Cup captain next year, once said that if he had to choose a player to play for his life, he would choose Rafter and his next choice would be Hewitt.

Also absent will be doubles-superstar Todd Woodbridge, who will stay home because of the expected birth of his child. Woodbridge's surpassing serve-returning ability from the right-hand court will be missed, along with Australia's traditional advantage in doubles. The Aussies without the Woodys lost their Cup doubles against Switzerland in the opening round this year, while in July the Spanish pair Corretja-Balcells defeated the U.S. Cup pair.

Clay-court tennis is almost always played outdoors, and differences can be expected in indoor play. The effects of wind and sun are removed, air humidity can be high from the court watering, and crowd noise is intensified. The footing and bounce will depend on the court conditions including, especially, the extent of moisture. The brutal temperatures of Iberian summers will be blessedly absent.

Last year's Cup final at Nice was also on indoor clay. Present was Basil Stafford, who was thrilled by the occasion and especially by the role of the crowd. The Australian players were treated fairly by the French fans and had strong support from their own countrymen in the gallery. Basil says that logic makes Spain the slight favorites but that they will get an almighty fight, as the Australian team is totally committed. He greatly regrets that he will not be there.

Past form sometimes means little in Cup play. My own thoughts are heavily influenced by the U.S. failure in Spain last July, by having watched Corretja's superb performance here in Washington in August, and by Hewitt's recent physical weaknesses. In my opinion, the Spanish team led by Corretja will prevail.

NEXT YEAR

World Group play for Davis Cup 2001 will start in February. Several excellent matchings loom, where a stronger nation must visit a smaller but dangerous foe. The U.S. goes to Switzerland, for example, where the Australians narrowly avoided defeat in 2000. The new American captain, replacing John McEnroe, must recruit the nation's best players, as Switzerland's Federer and Rosset are both finishing the current year in the top thirty. Russia's Safin and Kafelnikov will be favored at Slovak Republic, Spain must visit Netherlands, surely on a fast indoor surface, and France will play in Belgium. Meanwhile host nations Brazil and Australia appear safe against visitors Morocco and Ecuador, while Germany will visit Romania and Sweden will host Czech Republic.

The Davis Cup seems decidedly in good institutional health. Peoples everywhere look to the prospects of their national teams each year. Plainly, however, the times are gone when a player might withdraw from a Wimbledon final in order to be physically ready for Davis Cup play the next week, as happened in 1931. Still, most players outside the top echelon remain eager for Cup duty if asked, though it seems clear that too much is requested of the few superstars at the top. Reflecting this, Agassi and Sampras recently recommended that the competition be biannual and that it be played at one site in a single time interval, notions which I deplore. It seems to me that if major surgery is unavoidable, cutting World Group to just eight or even six nations would be less of a setback. Perhaps the tradition of best-of-five-set matches should be ended, thus reducing cases of extreme physical demands on a player. Expanding the format by adding two matches, a #3 singles and #2 doubles, would make up for the shorter matches and would certainly improve the team aspect.

In my opinion, the Cup is among the game's greatest treasures, resting on more than a century of continuity. It remains the focus for tennis in all countries, a strong force everywhere for building the game, and should not be diminished to suit a few superstars.

--Ray Bowers

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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.

Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75 singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.


 

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