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Between The Lines
September 29, 2005 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Fed Cup and Davis Cup 2005

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Ray Bowers

This year's Fed Cup featured an abbreviated look, where only eight nations instead of sixteen competed for the championship as members of World Group 1. If the idea was to improve participation among the top female stars there was partial success. The scheme also reduced the likelihood of one-sided early-round match-ups.

This year's champion was decided in a final-round confrontation between Russia and France, who also met in last year's final. As usual, the meeting consisted of four singles matches followed by one doubles over two days. The place was Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros--the world's foremost clay-court arena, a wonderful stage for the world's team championship. The 15,000 impassioned watchers on September 17-18 saw tennis of the highest intensity. Elena Dementieva won two singles and, with Dinara Safina, the doubles, to account for Russia's 3-2 victory. All three matches of the second day were split-setters. Dementieva's achievement was of historic quality. To her credit, in her glory she made sure to speak of the critical contribution of teammate Myskina in the previous round.

There were also interesting moments in the earlier rounds. In first-round action April 23-24 in Florida, Americans Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport produced a comfortable victory over a Belgian team lacking injury-troubled Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne. Meanwhile, Dementieva won two singles matches and Bovina one in Russia's victory over Italy on Brindisi clay. (In the other first-round meets, France advanced over Austria, Spain over Argentina.)

Both France and Russia passed semi-final tests July 9-10, shortly after Wimbledon. Mauresmo captured two singles wins and Mary Pierce a third to bring host-nation France a quick victory over Spain on an outdoor hard surface. Meanwhile on indoor clay in Moscow, the Russians squared off against a U.S. team led by Venus Williams. American hopes largely rested on the possibility of two singles wins and a doubles win by Venus. But Anastasia Myskina defeated Venus in the opening match. It was enough to assure a Russian triumph, as neither Jill Craybas nor Mashona Washington, who shared the #2 singles position for the Americans, proved able to take a set from Dementieva or Myskina.

The splendid final round in September was remindful of the great Davis Cup challenge rounds many decades ago, some of which also took place at Garros. Could 2005 be a turning-point for Fed Cup, which has struggled in recent years? Certainly prospects seem appetizing for next year, especially if the Belgian and American teams are both at full strength. Joining World Group 1 will be Germany, whose team advanced in promotion-relegation play in July behind two wins by Anna Gronefeld, age 20. In first-round action April 22-23, Germany will host U.S., Spain will host Austria, France will host Italy, and in a dream pairing, Belgium will host defending-champion Russia.

The eight-nation World Group 2 will offer plausible candidates for promotion. A new member will be China, rising from the sixty nations that competed in this year's zonal play. Also in Group 2 will be Czech Republic, including Nicole Vaidisova, 16, and several other rising stars. Argentina, the team that descended from Group 1 this year, should challenge upward.

By winning Fed Cup 05, Russia became the first nation to win twice in the 21st Cenury. A sour episode was a mid-season comment attributed to Myskina that Maria Sharapova should not be invited to the Russian team. (Maria came to America nine years ago but so far has wished to preserve her Russian tennis nationality.)

It seems to me that the successes of 2005 mean that Fed Cup is indeed ready to blossom as a focal event of the tennis year. A next step should be reintroduction of the old Wightman Cup format, where a #3 singles match and a #2 doubles match are added, making a total of seven matches, played over three days. The expanded scheme should be used for World Group 1 action and perhaps also for World Group 2. The top nations are deep enough in talent and resources to sustain the moderate increase in team size. (Until 1997, Fed Cup finals consisted of just two singles matches and one doubles.) The expanded format would provide (1) another step in the growing leadership of tennis among women's sports worldwide, (2) superb showcasing of players not yet of superstar class, including in doubles, and (3) a major improvement in the team aspects of the competition.

DAVIS CUP 2005

Two unlikely finalist nations will meet in December to decide the championship of Davis Cup 05. Both Slovak Republic and Croatia are small countries in central-eastern Europe, successor states resulting from the break-up of, respectively, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Neither team can claim a player of the top ten in the 2005 singles or doubles races. Today's fans, however, may remember the great Slovak player Miloslav Mecir, "the big Cat," and recent Croatian star Goran Ivanisevic. Neither nation has ever reached a Cup final, though Czechoslovakia (with Slovakia as a part) won the trophy in 1980.

Croatia's journey to the forthcoming final began with a necessary victory over Belgium in the promotion-relegation round a year ago. The event was held on a fast indoor surface favorable to the host Croatians. Ivan Ljubicic and Mario Ancic both won their first-day's singles matches and then together won the doubles. Then in March 2005 came a more difficult assignment--facing the Americans in California on a hard surface of American choosing. Ljubicic, who had largely accounted for Croatia's victory over the American Cuppers in Zagreb in 2003, now did so again. Ivan first defeated Agassi in three sets, then joined Ancic in defeating the Bryans in four, and finally defeated Andy Roddick in five. (The Bryan twins had never lost a Cup doubles, and would reach the finals of all four doubles Slams in 2005.)

The Croatians hosted their next two meets, against Romania in July 2005 and against Russia in September, both held indoors at Split. In both engagements, Ivan repeated his recent successes, winning two singles and combining with Ancic in winning the doubles, thereby producing 3-1 team victories. (The fifth matches became meaningless for the team outcomes.) All the aforementioned meets were on hard courts, and all were on Croatian soil except in March against the Americans.

The home-court advantage has also worked for Slovak Republic. The Slovaks earned promotion to World Group 2005 by defeating Germany in fall 2004, and since then in World Group play has defeated Spain, Netherlands, and Argentina. All four of these triumphs came on a hard surface in Bratislava. In these engagements Dominik Hrbaty achieved a remarkable W-L record of 6-1 in meaningful singles matches, Karol Beck 2-2. In doubles, Beck-Mertinak were 3-0.

Both finalist nations are strongest on hard courts. As the host nation in December, Slovakia presumably will choose an indoor hard surface. Note however that the Slovaks chose indoor clay against the U.S. in the 2003 promotion-relegation round. (The result was an American victory, though Hrbaty upset Roddick the first day.) It is early for predicting the coming outcome, but the head-to-head results among the principals suggest a clear edge for Croatia over the Slovaks. See footnote at the end of this column.*.

There was also drama in the promotion-relegation matches, 23-25 September, where eight qualifiers from zonal play were paired against the eight nations who lost in World Group first round. I tried to follow the ebb and flow of the weekend's events by internet, and I also watched much of the U.S.-Belgium meeting on ESPN2, held on indoor clay in Leuven. Belgian star Olivier Rochus was superb in first-day action, defeating James Blake while showing dazzling court mobility, confident shotmaking, and brilliance at net and in drop-shotting. But American firepower thereafter prevailed, Roddick winning his first-day's singles and then the Bryans lifting the Yanks ahead on day two. Olivier also played well on the third day and in the fifth set seemed less tired than Roddick, but Andy benefitted from a bad call with Rochus facing break point. Andy also profited from the opportunity to rest during the ensuing discussion. The crowd thereafter became understandably surly, weakening the joy of the Americans in completing their victory a few minutes later. The difference was Roddick's superior serving, where Andy produced five aces in the third-set tiebreaker, 35 in all.

Seven of the eight promotion-relegation meets were won by the nation defending its World Group status. The only zonal-group nation earning promotion was Germany, which defeated incumbent Czech Republic 3-2. (The five matches consisted of three five-setters and two four-setters.) Both Czech wins were by Berdych, age just 20. Narrowly avoiding relegation was 2004 champion-nation Spain, which trailed host Italy 1-2 after the second day but won both third-day singles.

The nearly five-hour marathon of Olivier Rochus and Andy Roddick offered fresh example that the quest for the Cup requires too much of a few top players. Rochus had played best-of-five singles and doubles the two preceding days, while toward the end Andy was closer to exhaustion than I'd ever seen him. No wonder that Agassi, for example, is reluctant to spend a part of his remaining playing career in Cup matches. In my opinion, it would be wise to reduce Cup matches to best-of-three sets and to cut the top World Group to just eight nations (meaning just three weekends of play during the Cup year). Expanding each meeting to seven matches would compensate fandom for these reductions and, as noted for Fed Cup, would improve the team aspects.

The draw for next year's World Group took place in Paris on September 29. First-round play will take place February 10-12. The upper half is the tougher, including Spain and Argentina, both of which are almost unbeatable on home clay. Croatia is top-seeded in that half, which also includes Australia and Switzerland. Federer played both singles and doubles for the Swiss team in the September promotion-relegation round. The Swiss #2 player was Stanislas Wawrinka, 20, who defeated Britain's Andy Murray in straight sets.

In the lower half of the draw, U.S. will have home-court advantage against Romania and, if successful, also in round two against Chile or Slovak Republic. France will visit Germany, Russia will visit Netherlands.

Over 130 nations entered Davis Cup 2005. The competitive balance at the top remains excellent. In the ten-year period ending in 2005, France and Australia each won twice, as did Spain and Sweden. Russia won once, and either Slovakia or Croatia will have done the same. The concern lest an expanded format cause too-frequent U.S. triumphs seems weak, as the Americans scored only two runner-up finishes and no championships during the period.

The title sponsor for both Fed Cup and Davis Cup in 2006 and thereafter will be the leading European bank BNP Paribas. The arrangement seems a natural one, as Paribas has a presence in 85 countries including growing roles in Asia and U.S.

PERSPECTIVE

Although tennis is primarily an individual game, players and fans also enjoy team competition. School, community, and club tennis teams abound, bringing widespread pleasure and satisfaction while largely preserving the special ethic of the game. In the great international team events--Davis Cup in men's, Fed Cup and before that Wightman Cup in women's tennis--teams organized along national lines bring peoples everywhere endless topics for discussion and foci for emotional attachment. Whether or not the Cups have improved international good will can be debated.

But without question, they--and especially Davis Cup--have over the decades vastly contributed to the popularity and strength of tennis worldwide. Many of the great moments in tennis history happened in Cup play. Was there ever a player who at age ten did not imagine playing for his or her country? The Cups reach us as a legacy from the game's past. They must be kept healthy and used to strengthen the game, even as they must be treasured and passed on. --Ray Bowers

*FOOTNOTE

Here are head-to-head results among the principals for the coming Slovak-Croatian Cup final. Matches during 2003-2005 are shown. Of the nine head-to-head matches during the period, the Croatian player won seven, the Slovak player two.

Hrbaty (S) v. Ljubicic (C). Ljubicic won both meetings--at Rotterdam in 2005 and Milan in 2003, both on hard court. Both matches were split-setters.

Hrbaty (S) v. Ancic (C). Ancic won all three meetings, at Marseille 2005, at Wimbledon 2004, and at Barcelona 2004. Hrbaty won just one set in these engagements, at Barcelona.

Beck (S) v. Ljubicic (C). Ljubicic won two of three matches--at Milan in 2005 and at Canada 2004. Beck won at Milan 2004. Both players won four sets in these matches.

Beck (S) v. Ancic (C). In their only meeting during the period, Beck won in straight sets at Long Island 2003.

Beck-Mertinak (S) v. Ancic-Ljubicic (C). These pairs have never faced each other. Ancic and Ljubicic have played together often this year. Beck-Mertinak have played together only in Cup competition.

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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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