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Between The Lines
July 21, 2003 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
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Fed Cup, Washington, D.C.

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Ray Bowers

The two women were both in their early twenties. They weighed the same, 140 pounds by the official listing. But one of them, the American, was six inches the taller, at 5-11. Meghann Shaughnessy was long, limber, with braided long hair accentuating her height. She used her tallness well, unwinding into her serving motion with both smoothness and power, regularly delivering at around 110 mph, the fastest among the weekend's singles performers. Her solidly built opponent, Franchesca Schivarone, from Milan, also delivered good power but with less the serving and forehand velocity of the rangy American. It was the opening match of the Fed Cup quarter-final between the U.S. and Italy, in Washington, D.C., Saturday, July 19, 2003.

Little by little, the forcing play of Shaughnessy, who ranked somewhat higher than her opponent in the 12-month standings, began to prevail. Repeatedly, Meghann's forcing serve set up her power forehand for an early point-ending rocket. On Francesca's serve, it was often the forehand of the American that led to a point-ending force. The Shaughnessy forehand seemed to accelerate during its travel, while Francesca's heavy topspin seemed to retard the ball's flight prior to the bounce. Meghann captured the first set 6-3, and in set two moved to a 5-1 lead after producing three games of almost untouchable serving.

The muscular Italian would not give up, however, struggling to avoid the near-whitewash. She double-faulted at game point but then closed with a nice serve-and-volley, bringing the game score to 5-2. Then came a careless looper by Meghann, and later a wide forehand by the American with her feet not set. Another fine net approach by Francesca brought the tally to 5-3. The sometimes fiery Italian next overcame footfaults and some other ragged play to reach 5-4. Now it was Meghann's turn to serve once again for the match.

I wrote in my notebook that it was now Schivarone who was hitting the more aggressively, that it was Shaughnessy who was now playing defensively. Meghann later explained that she had become "a little bit nervous and stopped moving my feet and going for my shots." But fate proved momentarily kind. The tall American managed to reach 40-15, with two match points just ahead. But both points slipped away, including a very close miss at 40-30. Suddenly, after another forehand error by Meghann, it was game point for the Italian to equalize the set and complete the reversal.

There was a lot going on mentally, more even than most in the gallery realized. The American captain, Billie Jean King, afterwards reminded reporters that just a year ago Meghann lost a critical Cup match to Barbara Schwartz of Austria. (Shaughnessy was replacing Capriati in the third match of the tie, Capriati's first-day match having been forfeited.) Meghann had battled well and had attained a match point. But somehow matters had unraveled, and Schwartz eventually captured the victory that wrapped up the Austrian 3-2 triumph. Billie Jean told how it had been a shattering experience for Meghann. She might have added that it was a disappointment shared by Billie Jean in her vulnerability after the Capriati fiasco.

Now, against Schivarone, the spectre was looming of what is sometimes, often unfairly, called "choking." Once again, Billie Jean was courtside as Meghann's team captain. During the second-set slide against Schivarone, Billie Jean had repeatedly called for her player to "hit the ball!"--i.e., to stop holding back. But it was up to Meghann herself to overcome whatever demons were inside, whether or not left from the disaster in Charlotte.

The end came abruptly. Francesca, having forced open the door, was now the one who faltered. At the critical break point there came a framed mis-hit off the Schiavone backhand--an improbable error in the importance of the moment. The golden opportunity was momentarily gone. Now, at deuce, there came an early forehand error by the Italian. And next at match point, Francesca produced a nice serve return but then a miserable error to follow. Thus it was over in just a minute or so--just three points, each of them brief. The Italian chance to level the match and claim the momentum had vanished.

Next on court was Chanda Rubin, the petite star from Louisiana, the last-minute replacement for Venus Williams and at World #8 the highest-ranked of the Americans present. Earlier in the day, I had watched close-up her pre-match practice. With relatively short backswing, Chanda at just 128 pounds produced effortless and consistent power off both backhand and forehand. But even more dazzling was her obvious volleying ability, including consistent deep-court placement. All three strengths--forehand, backhand, and volley--along with her excellent court mobility, would be tested in Chanda's two court victories next to come.

The first victim was Rita Grande, whose backhand slices sometimes sat up off the bounce, thus inviting the Rubin forehand rocketry. I nevertheless admired Grande's court manner, along with her generous praise of Chanda's performance in the post-match interview session. To my question about the court surface, Rita answered that the bounce had been a fair one, comparable to that at U.S. Open. The Italian coach, Barazzutti, was less gracious, saying that the Americans had chosen the surface and that the bounce favored the Americans, especially Rubin.

The Sunday opener--the third match of the meeting--pitted Chanda and Schivarone. This was the closest and best-played match of the meeting. Francesca's serving and backhand hitting were much stronger than Grande's had been, and Chanda found it hard to unlimber her artillery. It looked as if Francesca had overnight become comfortable with the court and playing conditions. (She had earlier said that her performance often changes greatly from one day to the next.) Her backhand this day strikingly resembled that of Mauresmo. Rubin meanwhile started slowly, almost never attacking net throughout the first set, which was won narrowly by Francesca. Rubin (as told by Chanda in her post-match interview) was now being repeatedly told by Billie Jean to step up her attacking game. The advice seemed almost disastrous in game four of the second set, when after a failed net sortie on the second point Chanda fell behind 15-40. But in a moment remindful of the end against Shaughnessy, it was Schivarone who yielded two quick points on bad errors, bringing deuce and allowing Chanda to escape with a fine volley followed by a service ace.

A few games later Schiavone began to tire, betraying her condition by a long pause on the ground after slipping. With Chanda now coming to net more regularly and, once there, volleying with the skill I had glimpsed the day before, the American closed out the match comfortably.

The American team then made the celebratory circuit of joy bearing the red, white, and blue. Later Shaughnessy defeated a plucky Rita Grande in two sets, and the American doubles pair of Lisa Raymond and Alexandra Stevenson outclassed their Italian opponents. Stevenson's power and Raymond's aggressive net play made a good combination and reminded me of times past, when doubles teams often paired a power player and a finesse player. (Stoefen-Lott and Seguso-Flach.) Stevenson played very well and was a dominating force.

The weekend had been a fine success. All matches had been competitive except for the closing doubles. The 5,000-person stadium had been about two-thirds filled--not bad considering the absence of Venus and the other American superstars. (The top Italian player, Farina Elia, had also withdrawn.) Refunds were not given to those who bought tickets before Venus's withdrawal. The gallery had been highly animated, noisily supporting the U.S. team between points but showing good sportsmanship toward the visitors. The music during changeovers was loud and wild and seemed exactly right. The Tennis Channel was everywhere evident. TC telecast every point live, and earlier each day carried the matches in Charleroi between Belgium and Slovakia. The weather both dates was perfect.

I found the matches extremely interesting, especially the Rubin-Schiavone match. I also relished the chance to talk with the U.S. players one-on-one earlier in the week. With Shaughnessy and Rubin, my chat was mostly about their forthcoming opponents. With Lisa Raymond we talked about the women's doubles game. (Raymond is an aggressive net artist, one of the world's finest, but she told how she plays equally well with partners who hang back.) Alexandra Stevenson was a delight. Just as it came my turn to talk with her, an official interrupted to take Stevenson to a joint tv session with Rubin. But Alexandra ignored the official and instead asked me for my questions. I excused her, but she later spent five or ten minutes talking with me about her intent to become a pure serve-and-volleyer.

Four nations remain in the Fed Cup hunt for 2003. U.S. will play Belgium next, and France will play Russia. The four World Group quarter-final meetings this weekend, along with the eight meetings simultaneously held to qualify teams for next year's World Group, blanketed the world.

--Ray Bowers
July 20, 2003.

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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.

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