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Between The Lines
March 31, 2006 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Davis Cup, Fed Cup, and the Tennis Nations

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

There was once a time when the supreme goal in tennis was Davis Cup, recognized everywhere as the world's team championship among the nations. On one occasion in the 1930's, for example, a top American player sat out Wimbledon at the bidding of U.S. Lawn Tennis Association in order to be at his best for Davis Cup action a week later. But at the same time, sportsmanship in Cup play usually outweighed the goal of winning. Thus a host nation might consult with the visiting nation in choosing a court surface that would be fair to both squads.

Such practices seem archaic to us today, where the big-money Slams and endorsements push Cup activity to lesser status, where host nations unabashedly choose arenas and court surfaces designed to maximize their own chances of winning. But recollections of that earlier era yet command my admiration.

DAVIS CUP

The tennis establishment has done well over the years in preserving and in some ways improving the Davis Cup competition. Well over a hundred nations now participate in Cup play annually, organized into a 16-nation World Group plus various zonal groups who compete for admission to the next year's World Group. The balance of power in Davis Cup play has proven decidedly healthy of late. In the five years of our current century, five different nations have captured the Cup--Croatia in 2005, preceded by Spain, Australia, Russia, and France.

All five recent champions began 2006 as members of the current World Group, all with plausible chances for capturing this year's crown. Other prominent candidates were U.S.A., which last captured the Cup in 1995, Argentina, which has never won the Cup but is extremely strong on clay courts, and Slovak Republic, the 2005 runner-up.

In first-round meetings February 10-12, 2006, the sixteen World Group nations reduced themselves to eight. The action produced only moderate drama, as in most cases the favored nation ended matters early by winning both first-day's singles matches and then the doubles. Germany's loss to France on home courts came as a surprise, however, as both Kiefer and Haas had been playing well, both having extended Federer at the recent Australian Open. Gasquet's first-day win over Tommy Haas in five sets must be a high point in the French teen-ager's career to date. Meanwhile Switzerland without Federer lost to Australia without Hewitt. In that engagement Wawrinka at age 20 won twice in singles, so that it seems likely that a Federer-Wawrinka singles line-up would have produced a Swiss team victory. Of the clay-court nations, Argentina and Chile both defeated European opponents on home clay, while Spain lost to Belarus indoors at Minsk. Host U.S.A. defeated Romania.

The eight survivors will face off in second-round meets, 7-9 April. The most intriguing match-up will pit host France against visiting Russia on an indoor hard court. The French team should be strong behind veteran Grosjean and youthful Gasquet, both of whom performed well in Cup play against Germany and then at Indian Wells in March. Clement and Llodra add good line-up options for doubles or as substitutes. Still, Russia's Davydenko will be the highest-ranking singles artist present, while Safin of late has shown occasional return to his past excellence. (Safin defeated Davydenko twice recently.) Andreev, who played well in beating Andy Roddick at Indian Wells, is not listed on the four-man playing team just nominated. The margin seems very tight. My narrow choice is the French squad.

The strong-serving Croatians at home should be too much for Argentina. It could be close, however, as Argentina's Nalbandian defeated Ancic in the quarters at Miami last week, while Croatia's Ljubicic defeated Calleri. Both matches were straight-setters. Meanwhile host-nation U.S.A., with Blake, Roddick, and the Bryans all in good health, should prevail over Chile on a grass court in California. Australia's chances in Belarus will be good if Hewitt plays. (He has been nominated to the four-man team.) The Aussies would be favored in the doubles and in Lleyton's two singles matches.

What will happen when the four winners in the quarters meet in September? If U.S.A. and France both survive, then the Americans would host the French, presumably on a fast surface. If the American prime four players all remain at current form, then the Americans should be strong favorites. If the American opponent is Russia, then the latter would be the host, and on a hard court the teams would seem roughly equal. But if Andreev returns and if the surface is clay, the advantage would shift to the Russians. Meanwhile in the other likely semi-final Croatia would be host nation and the clear favorite against Australia.

Projecting ahead still farther to the championship round, defending-champion Croatia would be home nation against U.S. and therefore a slight favorite. If the match-up pits Croatia and Russia, the latter would be host and a definite favorite on clay. Thus although many twists and turns lie yet ahead, the current odds seem slightly to favor Croatia to repeat as champions, with U.S., France, and Russia not very far behind in their chances to triumph.

FED CUP

Fed Cup 2004 and 2005 were both decided in final-round confrontations between France and Russia. The two nations divided equally the four singles matches in both meetings. In Fed Cup the doubles is played last, and in both cases here it was the final match, the doubles, that decided both outcomes. In both cases it was the Russians that prevailed. Last year's heroine was Elena Dementieva, who defeated both Pierce and Mauresmo in singles and joined with Safina to capture the doubles and complete the 3-2 team win. All three of Elena's victories were split-setters. The year before, in 2004, the glory went to Anastasia Myskina, who likewise won two singles (over Dechy and Golovin) and the deciding doubles (with Zvonareva).

The eminence of Russia and France in Fed Cup play seems likely to continue in 2006. Action will begin on 22-23 April, when the eight World Group nations face off at four western European locations. All four engagements will be played on red clay.

Of extreme interest will be the meeting of Russia and Belgium, to be held indoors at Liege. The highest ranked Russian star nowadays, Maria Sharapova, has said she wants to play Fed Cup for Russia at some time, but she has said she will be unable to play in the forthcoming engagement. The Russian team will be strong, however, probably to include Dementieva and Petrova--both of them comfortably within the world's current top ten. Svetlana Kuznetsva, who showed superb power stroking in defeating Hingis and Mauresmo in Miami this week to reach a final-round meeting with Sharapova, would be a sturdy alternative. Meanwhile the strength of the Belgians remains very uncertain. Superstars Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne have not served together on a Cup team for three years, though there are hopes that both will participate at Liege. If indeed both play and if both are at their best, then a Belgian victory would seem likely. But both Clijsters and Henin were eliminated early at Miami, and Henin lost to Dementieva in the semis at Indian Wells the week before. If only one of the two superstars performs at top form, then the Russians should be favored to win.

Meanwhile France, with good depth behind superstar Mauresmo, should comfortably defeat Italy indoors at Nancy. (Pierce has a bad foot, however, and Golovin hurt her ankle late this week in Miami.) Host-nation Spain seems likely to overcome visiting Austria in Valencia outdoors, while U.S.A. should be too strong for host Germany provided that Lindsay Davenport participates. But without Davenport, who missed Miami with injuries, the American advantage would vanish. Young Gronefeld and Schruff bring credentials at least equal and probably superior to the American second line on outdoor clay.

So another Russia-France final seems plausible for September 2006, where home-nation advantage will rest with the Russkayas.

OTHER TEAM OUTCOMES

Hopman Cup is another team event, held each January in Australia among nine invited nations. Each contest consists of a male singles, a female singles, and a mixed doubles match. The U.S. team of Lisa Raymond and Taylor Dent won in 2006, capturing the deciding mixed-doubles in a third-set tiebreaker. Previous winners in this century were Slovak Republic (2005), U.S.A. (2004 and 2003), Spain (2002), and Switzerland (with Hingis and Federer, 2001).

World Team Cup is held on clay each spring among eight nations in Dusseldorf, where each meet consists of two men's singles and one men's doubles match. Germany won last year, led by Tommy Haas, defeating second-place Argentina. Chile won in 2004, thereby predicting the singles and doubles triumphs of Massu and Gonzales at that summer's Olympics. Chile also won the event in 2003, Argentina won in 2002, and Australia in 2001.

An unofficial competition can be observed in the tally of match-wins (both singles and doubles) at Slams and other major tournaments. In men's events of recent years, the U.S. array has led on fast courts, while Spain and sometimes Argentina have regularly prevailed on clay. At Australian Open 2006, the U.S. males finished ahead of second-place France by just three matches. The Americans also led at Indian Wells and are ahead late in Miami 2006.

Meanwhile the Russians have been consistently ahead among the women. In 2006 the Russkayas outdistanced second-place France at Australian Open, won at the Tier One at Tokyo, and are far ahead at Miami. At Indian Wells, the Americans and Russians finished in an exact tie, where Russian strength in the late rounds of singles balanced an Americans edge in the early rounds of singles and in the doubles.

The year is young. Our broad review of the national team competitions reveals that Russia and France are the leading candidates for unofficial honors as world champion nation at year's end. Both nations show quality and depth in both men's and women's tennis.

NATIONALITY

The concept of nationality is sometimes vague in big-time tennis, as many of the future stars depart from their home countries at early ages and then spend much of their professional lives in international travel. Many established players take residence away from their original countries for tax or other reasons. Both the men's and women's tours, however, list a tennis nationality for each player, presumably in accord with each player's preference. Unquestionably, competition along national lines is appealing to sportsmen and sportswomen everywhere, strengthening the appeal of pro tennis worldwide. Fans everywhere identify with the top players from their own countries.

Clearly the men's tour is trying to exploit nationality in effort to improve interest in doubles. At Miami this week, 21 of the 32 pairs in the main draw of the men's doubles were same-nation combinations. Meanwhile only eight of the 32 women's pairs were same-nation combinations.

How to improve Davis and Fed Cup competition is a fashionable topic. As a life-long Cup-watcher, my personal instincts are generally conservative. I admire that the Cup season takes place over the length of the year, thereby affording almost endless food for discussion. (An opposite notion suggests compressing World Group competition into a one- or two-week period, as in Hopman Cup or World Team Cup.) The present arrangement where zonal-group winners can move into higher group status the next year is excellent.

But I believe it is a weakness that the leading clay-court Cup nations are (1) almost unbeatable on clay courts at home while being (2) usually doomed to defeat on fast courts abroad. Meanwhile hard-court nations like U.S.A. show the opposite phenomenon. The result is that the luck of the draw sometimes has massive role in determining each year's outcome. An answer might be to stage all meets on hard-courts one year, then all on clay the next. A related weakness is the option of choosing grass courts in hosting Cup play, always in order to help the home nation's players. This seems highly unsporting to me, and it furthermore perverts the quality of the tennis, as the competitors have usually not played on grass since the preceding Wimbledon. An exception might be made for any nation whose national open championships have been held in recent years regularly on grass (i.e., Britain).

The idea of cutting the Davis Cup World Group to eight members seems marginally acceptable to me. I believe a 14-nation Group would be best, where the previous year's finalist nations receive first-round byes. Best of all, to me, would be adding an additional singles and an additional doubles in World Group meets, both Davis and Fed Cups, making seven matches in all for each meet. This change would greatly improve the team aspects, reducing the frequent case where just one player largely determines the team outcome. Cutting matches to best-of-three sets should accompany this change and might encourage more participation by the superstars.

As seen, April will bring the quarter-finals of both Davis and Fed Cup World Groups. It will also bring zonal play, determining the nations that will compete for next year's World Group. The entirety provides a spectacle across our planet not comparable to anything else in sport.

--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.

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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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