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October 1, 2008 Article

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Fed Cup/Davis Cup 2008
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

This year, some eighty nations participated in Fed Cup action, while a hundred nations competed in Davis Cup. Fed Cup action is now complete for the year, Russia having emerged as champion. Meanwhile two nations have advanced to the Davis Cup championship round in November. The Cups remain centerpieces of women's and men's pro tennis, respectively.

The quest for Fed Cup 2008 produced interesting, though scarcely memorable, competition. First-round action for the eight nations in World Group I took place in early February. France and China, playing in Beijing, divided their four singles matches equally. Then Yan-Zheng won the doubles, completing a 3-2 victory for the Chinese team. Also advancing were Russia, Spain, and U.S.A., in each case gaining their victory by winning three singles matches. Then in second-round play in late April, Russia beat U.S.A. on Moscow clay, while Spain defeated China in Beijing. Both meetings were decided in sweeps of the first three singles matches, in all cases in straight sets. Russia and Spain thus became the finalist nations. Meanwhile Argentina and Czech Republic emerged from lower-group play to advance upward as members of next year's World Group I.


The championship round opened on the red clay in Madrid, September 13. Russia's Vera Zvonareva faced Valencia-born Anabel Medina Garriguez, the action televised to America by Tennis Channel. For most of the match Zvonareva was the heavier striker, the more-aggressive player, certainly the more active in coming to net and the more effective once there. The Muscovite also brought a surprising defensive excellence whenever her opponent held the initiative. Behind a frequently crushing forehand, Zvonareva prevailed in two straight sets. Then in the day's second match, Svetlana Kuznetsova unleashed a heavy-hitting, moderately high-risk game, generally keeping 20-year-old Carla Suarez Navarro deep behind baseline and winning comfortably in two sets. The result of the first day became a sweep of both singles matches for Russia.

The third match, played the next day, produced the meet's most interesting tennis. At the outset Kuznetsova dominated play with her heavier hitting, winning the first four games. But with little warning, Lana began committing more errors than her opponent. Meanwhile Medina Garriguez gradually worked away at the Russian's lead, eventually capturing the first set. But Kuznetsova replied successfully, in each of the next two sets taking the early lead, then losing it, and then finally prevailing, using her superior power more judiciously but still boldly. It was the third Russian point of the weekend, completing that nation's conquest of Fed Cup 08.

The fourth singles was not played, and the Russians won the now-meaningless doubles, so that the official final score became 4-0. It was Russia's fourth Fed Cup triumph in the last five years, a run matching Spain's in 1991-1995. The Russkayas also led in the major tournaments of 2008, having won more matches than the females of any other nation in three of the year's four Slams and also in all seven Tier I tournaments played to date.


Next year's first round will be played February 7-8. The four leading competing nations--Russia, U.S.A., France, and Spain--will each host a seemingly weaker opponent. Another Cup triumph for Russia seems likely unless the Americans offer a team that includes the Williams sisters. Serbia, with superstars Ivanovic and Jankovic, might have been a strong challenger next year, perhaps the favorite, but that nation will not be a part of World Group I in 2009.

The ineligibility of Serbia offers an argument against the present scheme, which limits World Group I to eight nations and prevents a rising team from qualifying for Group I unless it first spends a year in Group II. Serbia was not a member of Group II in 2008, having lost in its bid for membership against Slovak Republic back in July 2007. Jankovic played on that occasion but Ivanovic did not. Both played last April when Serbia beat Croatia and earned entry to Group II for 2009.

Over the years Fed Cup has lagged in attracting attention, probably in part because only a few nations have been plausible contenders for the crown. Another problem has been non-participation by some top players. Sharapova and the Williamses have played minimally for their nations, seemingly only enough to attain eligibility for the Olympics. Henin and Clijsters together captured the Cup for Belgium in 2001 but after that it was rare that both superstars participated. Meanwhile the Fed Cup authorities have been willing to trying new formats, but none has produced clear success to date.


Davis Cup action during the weekend of 19-21 September added to the greatness of this historic competition. In semi-final round play in the 16-nation World Group, Spain hosted U.S.A. in Madrid, while Argentina faced Russia in Buenos Aires. In both cases the playing surface was clay. Satisfactory late-season weather, outstanding attendance, and high crowd engagement marked both meetings.

SPAIN 3, U.S.A. 1

Tall American Sam Querrey, age 20 and height 6-6, showed several promising recent results, including three clay-court wins this spring at Monte Carlo and reaching the fourth round at U.S. Open 08, where he competed well in losing to Rafael Nadal. Now, in the opening match at Madrid as replacement for James Blake, Sam again made trouble for Nadal. Sam's best weapon, his serve, proved surprisingly effective on the red clay, especially when sliced wide to the backhand of Nadal, who stood unusually deep behind baseline in receiving. Sam's forehand also carried plenty of mustard, and it often drove Rafa deep or to the sides. The 2,100-foot elevation probably helped the through-the-air velocities of Sam's serve and forehand. There were also some stunning forehand volleys by Sam. But as expected, in the many extended exchanges Nadal was unquestionably the stronger of the two, though the American showed more-than-adequate movement and good ability in exploiting his long reach. Querrey's height also helped him in handling Nadal's high-bouncing offerings.

Using his assets well, and also assisted by Rafa's more-than-usual errors, Sam carried matters to six games all in the opening set. In the ensuing tiebreak game, Sam captured the early minibreak with a stunning forehand cross-court volley. Rafa regained equality several points later, but then contributed the critical gift of a second serve into the netcord and lifted outside the service box. Sam then captured the final point of the tiebreaker with a fine serve opening up two forcing forehands to opposite corners.

The first set thus went to Querrey, but after that the expected pattern began to emerge. Amid temperature in the 80's and facing increasing pressure from Rafa's relentless game, gradually the snap in Sam's movement and shotmaking declined. Seemingly miraculous plays by Rafa became more frequent. Rafa took a close second set when Querrey contributed two bad errors at the end, and then the third and fourth sets behind his own growing dominance. Querrey's competitiveness stayed to the end, but it was first rubber to Spain.

Next, Andy Roddick faced David Ferrer, both men top-tenners. Andy lost the first set in a close tiebreaker, then won the second and third handily, coming to net sometimes but winning mainly by virtue of his own strong serving and steady hitting aided by an uncharacteristic number of errors by David. But as set four began, Ferrer again found his usual air-tight game, breaking Andy's serve early. For the rest of the set, Andy continued to serve strongly, but David's own serving games proved secure. The Spanish player's wonderful court mobility frequently gave David time to set up for his accurate and punishing forehand. It was now two sets all.

The fifth set was tight throughout, both men defending their own serve well after exchanging early breaks. Andy was now playing almost entirely from back court, showing impressive consistency, power, and aggressive direction. Meanwhile David was regularly unleashing a surprisingly deadly first serve. Matters reached six games all. With the tiebreak rule not in effect, Andy was the first to falter, missing an angled volley by an eyelash to lose serve in the thirteenth game. David, under pressure, then managed to hold his serving game, and it was over. Two rubbers to Spain.

Bob Bryan was out of the doubles because of a bad shoulder, but replacement Mardy Fish held up well on the second day, Saturday, contributing his potent serve, good serve-returning ability, and generally solid doubles skills. After losing the first set, the Americans broke the Verdasco serve late in both the second and third sets and then broke Lopez early in set four, now seemingly in commanding position. But with the Spanish crowd and players seemingly lifting one another, the Spanish pair broke back to equalize at four-games all. Two games later, it was Fish's serve broken--by an excellent backhand serve-return rocket from Verdasco and then a fine low reply by Lopez that handcuffed Mardy. A fifth set would decide matters.

The Americans won that set, thanks to some aggressive net play by Fish in a serving game nearly lost and then some superior serving by Mardy in the final game. The tall Californian clearly made the difference in the outcome, leaving little doubt that Mardy could be a success on the doubles tour if he played regularly. The U.S. team on Saturday night thus remained alive, though needing to win both third-day singles.

But on Sunday, Rafael Nadal found his best tennis. The errors of the first day were now fewer, Rafa's forcefulness again at high level. Morning rains had also made the court slower than before, further sealing Andy Roddick's fate. Andy made it close for one set, coming to net behind every first serve and a few seconds. But in game seven Rafa's passing shots began to outnumber Andy's net winners, producing the first set's only break of serve. From then on, with Rafa's game at its peak, Andy had no answers. It was Nadal at close to perfection, a straight-set winner, sealing Spain's 3-1 triumph. The official score became 4-1 when Lopez won two tiebreak sets from Querrey.

It had been a worthy meeting with plenty of competitive tennis amid good-natured behavior by players and watchers alike. The Americans could be pleased in the worthy performance of their team, and the Spanish could take pride not only in their victory but also in the splendor of their large outdoor arena, converted from bull-fights, filled to 21,000 capacity on all three dates.


It was still officially winter in Buenos Aires, bringing cool, cloudy conditions at 35-degree latitude--about the same as that of the Carolinas. Argentina's Nalbandian and Russia's Andreev opened the action, both finding it hard to strike winners given the slow clay and the temperature. Andreev seemed slightly superior in serving and forehand power, while Nalbandian was slightly the more varied in shotmaking and slightly more willing to come forward aggressively. The first-set tiebreaker was marked by several shots landing extremely close to the lines where Nalbandian was the more fortunate in these cases. The deciding point in the tiebreak was the twelfth, Andreev serving, when Nalbandian broke the pattern of a long rally by slipping unexpectedly to net and putting away the easy volley.

Nalbandian moved ahead early in the second set, then almost lost his advantage in a seventh game marked by multiple deuces and two break-point opponrtunities for Andreev, then closed out by Nalbandian quickly. The third set was settled in the tenth game, when Nalbandian ripped three outright winners to break serve. It was a worthy straight-set win for the Argentinian.

In the second match of the day, Juan Martin del Potro, age 19 and height 6-6, impressively powered his way past Nicolay Davydenko. The Argentine youth showed fine court presence, good mobility, and a reliable backhand. But his superiority over Davydenko lay in his thunderous serve and forehand, both often forcing errors or producing winners. There was momentary doubt when, del Potro having temporarily softened his game, Davydenko nearly equalized the second set at five-games-all. But after multiple deuces, del Potro managed to close out the game, soon afterwards the set, and finally, less than an hour later, the match as well.

Russia had lost both first-day singles matches in straight sets, and their chances of winning the meeting now seemed close to zero. Apparently bidding for quick victory, the Argentines changed their doubles line-up, replacing Calleri with first-day hero Nalbandian as partner for Canas.

But on Saturday the Russian pair Kunitsyn-Tursunov quickly took a two-set lead, often playing with only one man at net, the other deep, doing so expertly. Tursunov contributed a potent overhead game, well supported by Kunitsyn's variety and quickness, the two blending their efforts very well in closing down court openings whenever they arose. The cool temperature and the slow court seemed to favor the Russians in blasting away at opponents at net. But Argentina's Canas-Nalbandian, generally employing the net-attack tactics conventional in top men's doubles, overcame several match points and managed to win the third and then the fourth sets. But in the fifth set, score six games all and with the tiebreak rule not in effect, Canas served a wobbly game, including a double-fault on the next-to-last point. Throughout that disastrous game, Canas stayed in back court after each serve. A few minutes later the victory by Kunitsyn-Tursunov reignited Russian hopes for the weekend.

Might the Argentine decision have been mistaken to use Nalbandian in what became an exhausting doubles thriller? At first it seemed not, as David began the third-day singles playing at his best, his doubles outing seemingly having tuned up his shotmaking. Moving and striking with full authority, Nalbandian won the first set and took an early service break in the second. But Davydenko's superb court movement kept points long, making Nalbandian work hard. In a set diminished by many service breaks, Davydenko finally equalized at one-set all.

As the third set unfolded it became clear that Davydenko was now the fresher player. Nicolay's near-perfect performance in winning the set-ending tiebreak game magnified the mental devastation of his two-sets-to-one lead. The match ended not long afterwards, a very tired Nalbandian unable to win a single game in the fourth set against a Davydenko now unwilling to contribute any unforced errors.

So it came down to a fifth rubber--Igor Andreev against Juan Martin del Potro, the latter the clear favorite by evidence of the weekend's play to date. The start was nervous, Andreev losing serve in the opening game, and the teenager then narrowly avoiding the same fate. For the rest of the first set, however, both men played steadily, holding serves, and eight games later del Potro closed out the set, still ahead by that initial break. The holding of serves continued into the second set as neither del Potro's effortless steady power nor Andreev's more-aggressive overspin forehands could overcome the slow conditions to produce more than an occasional winner. The set's first service break came in a long fifth game, del Potro profiting on the last point from a lucky netcord winner.

Now ahead by a set and a break, as if on cue the tall Argentine stepped up his game, raising his power and aggressiveness. Almost simultaneously from Andreev there came a dismal string of unforced errors, probably the result of tiredness, the noisy crowd support of del Potro, and the growing certainty of defeat. Del Potro took the last five games of the second set and the first four games of the third. The finish came moments later. Argentina, which has never won the Cup, had earned its place in the 2008 final round.


The promotion/relegation meetings at eight locations worldwide the same weekend added to the grandeur of the Cup weekend. Moving into next year's World Group was Switzerland, led by Roger Federer. Both Federer and teammate Stan Wawrinka won first-day singles matches and both shared in the doubles win, relegating visiting Belgium downward. Also moving up was Croatia, whose two singles wins by Karlovic and one by Ancic overcame the absence of that nation's newest sensation, Cilic. Chile too gained promotion, Gonzalez and Massu joining in defeating the Australians. Meanwhile Serbia avoided relegation when Djokovic and Tipsarevic won first-day singles and Troicki-Zimonjic won the doubles against Slovak Republic. The only superstar who failed to lift his nation was Andy Murray, who won two singles matches while Britain lost by 3-2 to Austria on Wimbledon grass.

The 2009 draw has been announced. First-round action on March 6-8 will include a visit by Switzerland to U.S.A., where the verdict could lie in the doubles, likely to feature Olympics champions Federer-Wawrinka against the American brothers Bryan. Another mouth-watering match-up will pit Serbia's strong line-up against host Spain's.


Argentina will host Spain in the 2008 Cup final, November 21-23. I had hoped that the choice of playing surface would be clay, thereby facilitating what could be a historic confrontation of the world's two clay-court superpowers. But officials of host-nation Argentina stated the intention to choose a hard court, in order to improve that nation's chances of winning. The International Tennis Federation has acknowledged that Argentina has the right to make that choice, but it also noted that the seating capacity in the originally specified arena is well below that required by ITF rules for staging the Davis Cup final. The matter awaits resolution.

The belief that Argentina's chances are stronger on hard courts is probably correct. Clay is the best surface for Spain's Nadal especially but also for Ferrer. A contrary consideration would be that Spain's doubles pair Lopez-Verdasco would be most effective on a hard surface.

Shown here are my estimated probabilities for Spanish success, Psp, on clay and on hard surface, respectively. Each match-up is estimated independently, and the values are then converted numerically to the overall team probability shown.

If clay is chosen:
Nadal vs. del Potro, Psp = 75%
Nadal vs. Nalbandian, Psp = 90%
Ferrer vs. del Potro, Psp = 35%
Ferrer vs. Nalbandian, Psp = 60% (note Ferrer career 4-0 on clay vs. Nalbandian)
Lopez-Verdasco vs. Canas-partner, Psp = 60%
from the above, Spain over Argentina, Psp = 76.6%

If hard is chosen:
Nadal vs. del Potro, Psp = 60%
Nadal vs. Nalbandian, Psp = 75% (but Nalbandian 2-0 over Nadal indoors in fall 2007)
Ferrer vs. del Potro, Psp = 35% (see hard-court performances US Open vs. Nishikori)
Ferrer vs. Nalbandian, Psp = 45% (but Nalbandian hard-court showing better at Olympics)
Lopez-Verdasco vs. Canas-partner, Psp = 75%
from the above, Spain over Argentina, Psp = 65.6%


The tennis competition in Olympic Games 2008 resembled the major tournaments held earlier in the summer, which featured nearly all the same players in similar format. Watching from afar, it seemed to me that the tennis was diminished, almost lost, amid the daily goings-on in the many other Olympic sports. All players at the Olympics are identified by nation, but in tennis there is no official team competition, as prevails in some other individual sports. Our tallying of Olympic tennis matches won by nation provided an unofficial team competition, where Russia was the winning nation among the women, France among the men. The doubles seemed more interesting than usual, as all doubles pairs were same-nation combinations.

Many alternatives have been offered for enhancing Fed and Davis Cups. My outlook is that moving away from traditional ways always carries some penalty, though sometimes for justifiable reasons. For example, the logic seems compelling for reducing the Davis Cup World Group to 14 nations (awarding first-round byes to the previous year's champion and runner-up nations) or perhaps fewer. Skipping Cup play in Olympic years seems acceptable if it leads to improvements in the year's tennis schedule and if nation-team competition in tennis is made official at the Olympics. Readers already know of my wish to see World Group meetings increased to seven matches (adding another singles and another doubles match) and Davis Cup matches reduced to best-of-three sets. Doing so would improve the team aspects and be less physically demanding of the top superstars. I like spreading the Cup competition, especially the Davis Cup's, over the long season, as at present, rather than trying to squeeze it into a single fortnight.

Stay alert for the indoor events in Europe and the final runs, male and female, to the year-end crowns.

--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.

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