The recent defeat of the U.S. Davis Cup team in Milwaukee by a well-focused Italian squad has been followed by a cloud of finger-pointing in this country. Andre Agassi has publicly blamed U.S. tennis officialdom for making it impossible for Agassi to participate and for choosing a playing surface that was to the American team's disadvantage.
The slow court, in my opinion, was only part of the reason for the losses by Gambill and Martin in the first-day singles. Watching by television, again and again I saw the Americans make inexplicable errors in replying to slow shots by the Italians. There were many occasions when Gambill or Martin would bear down, playing beautifully, to capture a hard-fought point. But far too often, on the very next point the American would make a frustrating dump. I wish I had counted how often Gambill replied to a paceless ball by lifting it outside the court boundaries or dispatching it into net. I'm sure both Americans practiced hard on the Milwaukee court prior to the competition, but I wondered if they worked against practice opponents able and willing to soften their strokes. It was the variety and the frequent softness of the Italian shotmaking, as much as the slowness of the surface, that wrecked the timing of the Americans.
The absence of the top American players was regrettable. Agassi, Sampras, Chang, or even a robust Courier would probably have spelled a narrow victory for the Americans. Agassi, for example, had defeated Sanguinetti in straight sets at the U.S. Open earlier in the month. Sampras's nonparticipation in 1998 Cup play, in my opinion, is a disappointing aspect in the career of a magnificent champion. In fairness to Sampras, however, one must admit that best-of-five play under enormous pressure asks a lot of this player who seems increasingly vulnerable to physical troubles.
I thank Gambill, Martin, and Gimelstob for competing hard and in a manner of high sportsmanship. Perhaps this is what matters most. Still, it is sad that our young people could find little or no inspiration in the adequate showing at Milwaukee by the world's leading sporting nation. It hurts to see American tennis slide backward a little farther.
In contrast, there was little outcry after the U.S. loss to Spain in the Fed Cup semi-finals in July. The American women, led by Monica Seles, almost brought home the victory against the top Spanish players, Sanchez Vicario and Martinez. Spain won the Madrid rubber by the margin of one service break in the decisive doubles. Seles won two singles matches for the U.S., but her valiant effort spelled her physical deterioration, probably hurting her in the ensuing outdoor summer circuit. Not present at Madrid was America's top player, Lindsay Davenport.
The United States is scarcely the only country to miss a star player in Cup competition this year. Novotna missed the Czech loss in Fed Cup to Italy a few weeks after her Wimbledon triumph, Pierce did not play for France, Graf for Germany. Meanwhile Philippousis missed Davis Cup for Australia, Krajicek did not represent Netherlands.
Should Davis Cup matches be changed to best-of-three sets, thereby reducing the physical demands on the athletes and perhaps encouraging the older stars to participate? Along with such a change, it would be interesting to see a #3 singles and a #2 doubles match added in each rubber, thus enhancing the team aspects. This change would reduce pressure on the dominant player, while still affording a good chance to a small country having only two top players.
THE POSITIVES IN 1998
Spain won the 1998 Fed Cup finale over Switzerland in a September meeting nearly as tight as Spain's earlier victory over the U.S. Like Seles, Martina Hingis won both her singles matches against the Spanish veterans, but first Sanchez Vicario and then Martinez defeated the Swiss number two, Patty Schnyder. Martinez tied the rubber at two matches all by defeating Schnyder by 9-7 in the third set. The Spanish pair then closed out the team victory by winning the doubles.
The Davis Cup year began for the sixteen World Group nations on 3-5 April. A highlight was Spain's close victory in Brazil when Moya and Corretja won critical third-day singles matches. The Americans narrowly defeated Russia, exploiting the inexperience of future champion Safin. Meanwhile Australia, lacking Philippousis and on the third day lacking Rafter, lost to Zimbabue. Defending champion Sweden narrowly survived over Slovak Republic after losing both first-day's singles.
Also taking place on the same weekend were the eight Davis Cup Group One finals and various Group Two encounters. The spectacle of all this activity simultaneously taking place at more than a score of places worldwide seemed to say what is right about international tennis.
Second-round winners in July were the U.S., Italy, Spain, and Sweden. Boris Becker made a rare appearance, playing doubles in Germany's close loss to Sweden. Then in September, Italy defeated the U.S. and Sweden won at home against Spain behind Bjorkman and newcomer Johansson.
Sweden will meet Italy in the Davis Cup final on 4-6 December. The Italians, who had choice of venue, are preparing a slow clay surface for the meeting, indoors in Milan. (One wag suggested that they should have chosen Milwaukee.)
Predicting the rubber's outcome is an interesting challenge. Sweden, having five players ranking higher than Gaudenzi at #38 and Sanguinetti at #48, unquestionably has the deeper and stronger team for any surface other than slow clay. Even on their chosen surface and with the home-crowd edge, the Italians should be slight underdogs. No Italian player reached the final sixteen on clay at Roland Garros this year, for example, nor the quarter-finals at any of the three clay-court Super Nines (Monte Carlo, German Open, Italian Open). Neither did any Swedish player.
We can expect that Sweden will again choose Thomas Johansson for singles. Johansson has three career wins over Sanguinetti, two of them on clay, without loss. Bjorkman, whose clay record in 1998 is poor, will probably be saved for the doubles, and Enqvist is an improbable clay-court choice. Thus the likely possibilities for the second singles berth are the three Magnuses--Gustafsson, heavy-hitting Larsson, and Norman, whose clay record is good. Gustafsson won the Swedish Open this year on clay, winning matches over the two players that earlier knocked out Gaudenzi and Sanguinetti, respectively.
I believe the Swedes will prevail in Milan by virtue of serious team preparation, a careful choice of singles players, and a narrow victory in doubles by Bjorkman-Kulti over the excellent Gaudenzi-Nargiso pair.
Already, the draw has been made for 1999's first-round engagements next spring. The eight World Group rubbers will include Russia at Germany, Netherlands at France, Brazil at Spain. Probably the most interesting will be the U.S. invasion of Britain, whose team will surely include both Henman and Rusedski. Will the Americans send a team that the splendid history of Davis Cup deserves?
At one time, Davis Cup meant more to Americans than than even the Slams. (See Davis Cup Was Everything in the Tennis Server Wild Cards archive.) In my opinion, Cup play can and should again become the pinnacle of our sport. International team competition is the vehicle that best brings tennis and its values to youth worldwide. Bringing home the Cup marks the true champion.