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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.