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.
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 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 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.
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.
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.