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Between The Lines
May 1, 2004 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Tennis Nations 2004

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Ray Bowers

Davis Cup was once the most valued prize in world tennis. Among fandom worldwide, a nation's Cup prospects required year-round attention. Youths everywhere dreamed of representing their country in Cup play.

It to the sport's credit that the annual Cup competition survived the transition to Open tennis. But in the ensuing system of player professionalism, where performances at other events directly determined a player's income, player commitments to Cup play were inevitably weakened. Players now receive direct pay for their Cup appearances, but the amounts scarcely equate to the physical and emotional expenditures made by the top pros. Amid careers where players constantly face problems of injury, breakdown, and fatigue, Davis Cup asks a lot.

In this column we survey recent results in Davis and Fed Cup play and also in other forms of competition between tennis nations. An early look at the coming summer Olympics is offered.

DAVIS CUP 2004

Early April brought the year's second big Davis Cup weekend, including twenty-odd meetings among the zonal-group nations competing for promotion to higher groups. But the weekend's prime attractions were the head-to-head meetings among the still-surviving World Group nations--the eight winners of earlier first-round play:

France 3, Switzerland 2. As expected, Federer captured two singles wins against visiting France, both in three straight sets, but the Swiss team could not muster a third win. In the fifth and deciding match, Escude defeated Kratochvil in consecutive sets, two of them tiebreakers.

USA 4, Sweden 1. Andy Roddick won two singles matches, both in straight sets. The Bryan twins dominated in the doubles, where Bjorkman's partner, Thomas Johansson, seemed overmatched. (Absent because of injury was Joachim Johansson, who had partnered Bjorkman in defeating Arthurs-Woodbridge in Sweden's February victory over Australia.) Bjorkman battled well in singles, defeating Mardy Fish in the opening match and carrying Andy to a first-set tiebreaker on Sunday. At the end, Jonas seemed overtaxed.

Spain 4, Netherlands 1. Playing outdoors on Mallorcan clay, both Moya and Ferrero won first-day's singles matches for the favored Armada. But the visitors won the doubles, Verkerk and van Lottum recovering from two sets down, and then Verkerk took the lead over Ferrero, two sets to one. But the reigning Garros champion then closed out matters over the perhaps overworked Netherlander.

Belarus 5, Argentina 0. Lacking Top Tenners Coria and Nalbandian because of injuries, Argentina was defeated on carpet by host Belarus. Having seen Agustin Calleri brilliantly defeat Agassi at Key Biscayne just ten days before, I was surprised when Vladimir Voltchkov, 31, who has fallen out of the world's top hundred, lost only nine games in defeating Calleri in the opening match.

Looking ahead to the September semis, Roddick and cast should be successful against visiting Belarus on any surface. Likewise host nation Spain should be favored over France. The probable Cup final between Spain and U.S., then, will be played on Spanish clay, where the Armada has been almost invincible.

THE MAJOR TOURNAMENTS

The wandering pros are virtual citizens of the world, and many of them spend little time in their countries of origin. Some of them leave home prior to adolescence for extended tennis training in other lands. But both ATP and WTA continue to identify players by their tennis nationalities, presumably following each player's preference. Thus during tournaments, it is only a short step for us to count up match wins by country. The running count of each nation's singles and doubles victories serves to enliven matters as the tournament proceeds.

Last year, the U.S. was clearly the winner at this game. American players scored the most match victories at three of the four 2003 Slams and also at five of the ten Masters tournaments. Some of the exceptions were on clay--Spain won at Garros, Monte Carlo, and Rome, and Argentina won at the German Open, where four Argentine players filled the singles semis. Late in the year, the French contingent won the most matches at the Paris Indoor Masters, and the Spanish contingent won at the Madrid Indoors. The U.S. prevailed at the year-end event, Masters Cup, with Agassi, Roddick, and the Bryans contributing strongly.

Strength in numbers helped the American cause in the above successes, but that was not the whole story, as several other nations had comparable depth. (At year's end Spain had 13 players ranked in the world's top hundred, followed by France and U.S., each with 11. Czech Republic had the most players (8) in the doubles top fifty.)

American success continued into the new year, when at Australian Open 2004 the Yanks recorded 27.5 match victories. France was second with 20 wins followed closely by Argentina and Spain. The Bryan brothers reached the doubles final thereby contributing five wins to the American cause, while Agassi reached the semis and Roddick the quarters in singles. It was the third straight year that the U.S. contingent won the most matches at Australian Open. (Back in 2001 the Australians scored the most wins behind broad success in early-round doubles.)

The Americans again prevailed in the 2004 Masters events at Indian Wells and Key Biscayne. At the latter, Andy Roddick contributed six wins in capturing the singles, and the Bryans added three more in doubles. Argentina had the second-best count. Vince Spadea's quarter-final victory over Argentine player Calleri was an important step toward the U.S. margin.

The European clay season promised strong competition among the contingents of Spain, Argentina, and France. Monte Carlo Open began with some spirited qualifying-round play, resulting in a total of 11 Spanish, 11 Argentine, and 13.5 French entries into the main draws of singles and doubles. Our tally of wins, which began with the main draws on Monday, remained close until Wednesday afternoon, when Argentina clearly began to pull ahead. On Thursday evening the Argentine lead over second-place Spain was now nearly conclusive--14-10 in match wins. Coria and Nalbandian had reached the quarters in singles and Etlis-Rodriguez the semis in doubles. Then Coria and Etlis-Rodriguez both won on Friday, sealing the verdict. Coria went on to win the tournament.

Argentina and Spain were accordingly the clear favorites to succeed at the forthcoming Italian, German, and French Opens, all on clay.

THE WOMEN'S TOUR

The usual dominance of the American women had been broken at U.S. Open 2003, where in the absence of the Williams sisters the Russian women outscored the Americans in match wins, 35-31. Although Belgian superstars Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters both reached the singles final, Belgium's match total was only fourth best, just behind third-place France.

With the new year, 2004, came several close tallys. With Serena still sidelined at Australian Open 2004, the Russian women narrowly won the most matches, score 31.5 to 30.5 over the Americans. The verdict swung on the final match of the mixed doubles, where Russia's Bovina (with Zimonjic) defeated the U.S.'s Navratilova (with Paes), thus averting a 31-all final tally. The year's first Tier One followed, in Tokyo, where Lindsay Davenport won the singles and led in producing a strong American margin. But the margin was again narrow at Indian Wells, where the Russians--lifted by good first-round strength in singles--scored 24 wins against 23 by the Americans. Then at Key Biscayne, both nations won exactly 26.5 matches. Serena Williams's victory over Dementieva in the singles final equalized the outcome. The American players then prevailed comfortably at Charleston behind Venus, who won the singles, and Navratilova-Raymond, runner-ups in doubles.

FED CUP FIRST ROUND

Last year, Fed Cup ended disappointingly when none of the current Belgian or American singles superstars participated in the semis and final in Moscow. The French team, with Mauresmo and Pierce, defeated Russia in their semi-final engagement and then defeated the U.S. team in the final.

Opening round of Fed Cup 2004 was played the third weekend of April. Eight nations survived including the four prime favorites--U.S., Russia, Belgium, and France. Winning two meaningful singles matches in the prime-nation victories were Venus Williams of U.S., Amelie Mauresmo of France, and Kim Clijsters of Belgium. The other four winning nations, each led by a player recording two singles wins were Spain (led by Martinez), Austria (Schett), Argentina (Suarez), and Italy (Schiavone). The only player during the weekend to win three meaningful matches--two singles and one doubles--was Conchita Martinez, who won Wimbledon in 1994 and has now at 32 seemingly rekindled her career. In the U.S.-Slovenia meeting the concluding doubles was meaningless to the team outcome, but the win by Navratilova-Raymond extended Martina's undefeated career record in Fed Cup singles and doubles.

The second round will take place just after Wimbledon. The four prime nations will again be favored to advance, though all four will be playing away from homeland.

THE 2004 OLYMPICS

This year's calendar includes an extra event having strong national-team flavor. The Olympics tennis will be played in Athens, August 15-22. There will be a 64-player draw in both men's and women's singles and a 32-pair draw in men's and women's doubles. A nation can be represented by a maximum of four players in each singles draw and two pairs in each doubles. Nations will select their own teams, and the existing pro rankings will be used in determining placement in the draws except that players from a given nation will be placed in separate quarters. Losing semi-finalists will play for third-place bronze medals. There will be no mixed-doubles event. The traditional gold, silver, and bronze medals will be awarded.

At the Olympics in Australia four years ago, the nation winning the most men's matches was Spain, lifted by Corretja-Costa's bronze medal in doubles and Ferrero's three wins in singles. Among the women, the U.S. won the most matches by far, led by singles champion Venus Williams and doubles winners Venus and Serena.

Tennis in the Olympics seems to grow in prestige, so that most of the world's top players will probably compete this summer. To my regret the player pool for the Legg Mason here in Washington, held the same week, will be diminished.

JUST AHEAD

The coming month of May will bring the German and Italian Opens, both on clay, where the Spanish and Argentine men and the Russian and American women can be expected to vie for match-win honors. World Team Cup follows--a one-week men's team event on clay among eight leading nations. Garros starts late in the month.

It will be interesting in December to look back on the year's major tournament, Cup, and Olympic results in search of a champion nation for the year. We will also choose our Pro Tennis Nation of the Year, where we reserve the option of picking the nation whose successes and contributions during the year seem largest in proportion to population.

--Ray Bowers

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1995 - May 1998 | August 1998 - 2003 | 2004 - 2014


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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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