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Between The Lines
September 29, 2001 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Davis and Fed Cups 2001

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

Each round of Davis Cup play brings fresh thrill. Sundry three-day engagements, played simultaneously at many sites across the globe, link tennis people worldwide. Youngsters everywhere dream of playing for their countries, while all fans debate the line-ups and likely outcomes. The pro warriors themselves profess that Cup play is the most challenging and pressure-packed experience of their careers. Davis Cup remains the game's greatest treasure.

Cup play began in February for the sixteen nations of this year's World Group. Spain, having won the 2000 championship just two months earlier on clay, now lost to the Netherlands on an indoor hard surface. Meanwhile the U.S., led by first-year captain Patrick McEnroe, lost to Switzerland when young Federer won two singles and, with Manta, the doubles. Russia defeated Slovak Republic behind two singles wins by Kafelnikov, and Germany defeated Romania behind two wins by Tommy Haas. Elsewhere, four other nations advanced to the second round.

The eight winners faced off in the second round in April. Host Sweden defeated Russia when Johansson won from Kafelnikov in five, while Netherlands defeated a German team lacking Haas.

Switzerland, again playing on home court, was eliminated by France. The main French hero was Nicolas Escude, who first defeated Federer in four sets and then, with the team score tied at two matches all, defeated Bastl in five. Similarly, Lleyton Hewitt carried his Australian teammates to a remarkable victory over Brazil at Florianopolis--Kuerten's home. The young Australian, playing on clay before an unsupporting crowd, won two singles and, with Rafter, the doubles.

Thus the semis in September provided two intriguing match-ups. Australia faced Sweden on an outdoor hard court (Rebound Ace) in Sydney, while France met the Netherlands on indoor hard (Supreme) in Rotterdam. Neither meeting was televised here in the U.S.

I kept up with the opening match in Sydney over the Internet. It was like listening to tennis on the radio many decades ago, except the challenge to the imagination was even greater. I tried to use the length of time between points to guess how points were being decided. Johansson clearly was contending well against higher-ranked Rafter. The Swedish player lost the first set by a closely contested service game, and kept things equal in the second until the final two points of the long tiebreak, also won by Rafter. Thus despite Johansson's seemingly fine effort, it seemed unlikely that the visitor, now two sets down, could prevail.

My attention was divided, as I simultaneously watched U.S. President Bush in his televised address to Congress pledging war against international terrorism. I remembered the week in 1939 when the broadcasts from the capitals of Europe betold the start of a new world war even as I listened to Riggs and Parker playing the Australians in the Cup challenge round. The conjuction of war and play seemed the same now as then.

When I returned to the Internet the next morning, I was surprised to learn that Johansson had defeated Rafter by winning the last three sets. Bjorkman in the second match, it turned out, also produced a score better than expected, although Lleyton Hewitt recovered from one set down to lift the Australians out of deep trouble. Australia then won the Saturday doubles, and Hewitt closed out matters with a close win over Johansson. It must have been an exciting three days in Sydney.

Meanwhile France closed out the Netherlands by winning the first three matches. Clement and Escude won in singles and Pioline-Santoro surprised Haarhuis-Schalken in doubles.

Thus two grand tennis traditions will again come together in the final round in December. The host Aussies, having two of the world's highest-ranked four in singles, will be favored over France regardless of surface. The three young French stars--Clement, Escude, and Grosjean--all have performed exceptionally well on the Melbourne Park Rebound Ace courts on past occasions. The Australians wish to install a temporary grass surface to improve their chances. This, to me, seems a patently unsporting action which, if allowed, would greatly diminish any satisfaction in winning. It is remindful of the American plan to play the Australians on clay at Longwood several years ago. I believe nations should ordinarily be expected to host Cup ties on whatever surface is used for their primary open tournaments.

Having a third world-class singles artist is a worthwhile asset for France (i.e., Grosjean), not only as insurance against possible injuries but also as a possible fresh substitute on the third day. Might Philippoussis, just now back from surgery and starting his quest for his earlier form, represent like depth for the Australians?

More than a hundred other nations played in the zonal groups this year. Eight teams emerged to compete with World Group first-round losers for membership in next year's World Group. Argentina, Croatia, and Britain earned promotion in promotion/relegation ties played in September. The India-U.S. match-up was postponed to October. The Americans were to have offered a powerful singles line-up in Andy Roddick and Todd Martin, but Roddick's subsequent ankle injury in Hong Kong now raises uncertainty.

The Davis Cup was once the prime focus of world tennis. I believe that the Cup remains critical to the future of the game and has been in good health during Year 2001 to date. Pro tennis has always been both business and competitive sport, where Davis Cup is the clearest reflection of the latter. If the sporting side of the game--i.e., especially the Cup--is allowed to wither, the business side too will sag.

But is the Cup worth building if it fails as a force for reducing hatreds?

As often happens in international sport, the Cup has been sometimes spoiled by unsporting host audiences fed on national or ideological partisanship. Today there is concern that the competition could suddenly turn ugly amid a world of widespread terrorism. I applaud that many nations situated in regions of hatred took part in this year's Cup play--among them Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Israel, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Most of all, I applaud the great majority of Cup athletes and officials whose examples surely contribute to the faint hope of fraternity among all peoples.

FED CUP

Twelve nations of this year's Fed Cup World Group played elimination match-ups in April and July. Four survivors emerged. Each match-up consisted of four singles and one doubles match.

The four survivors were France, Argentina, Russia, and Australia. These will join last year's four semi-finalist nations--U.S., Belgium, Czech Republic, and Spain--in the World Finals 5-11 November in Madrid. The Finals will start with round-robin competition in two groups. (Group A consists of U.S., France, Czech Republic, and Argentina.) The winners of the two groups will then play each other on the final day for the championship. All round-robin engagements and the final-day's play will consist of two singles and one doubles match.

Defending-champion United States should be a strong favorite to win in November. Of the world's top-ranked eight stars, the U.S. claims five--Capriati, Davenport, Seles, and the Williams sisters. Only Belgium, with Clijsters and Henin, seems a plausible contender. But the American players have complained about the decision to play the Finals in Spain. (The rule had been that the defending champion, i.e., the U.S., would be the host.) If the top American stars boycott the event, then France would seem the likely final survivor opposite Belgium.

Some eighty other nations competed this year within a pyramid arrangement akin to Davis Cup zonal play. In July, the upper-group survivors met World Group losers for membership in next year's World Group. Sweden was the only nation to win promotion.

Fed Cup has been around since 1963 but has never attained the public appeal of Davis Cup. Televised images of last year's finals in Las Vegas showed many empty seats. The formats have changed from year to year, perhaps too often. The coming matches in November could be fascinating if the top players from all competing countries are present. But it is clear that Fed Cup has not yet achieved its potential for building the women's game.

--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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