Soon after the forthcoming Super Nines at Indian Wells and Key Biscayne, the leading nations will begin their Davis Cup and Fed Cup play. Altogether some 130 nations are participating in this, the hundredth year of Davis Cup competition, and about 100 will compete in Fed Cup. People worldwide, including many who are not tennis players, will share in witnessing what is right about our sport.
DAVIS CUP 1999
The sixteen World Group nations will pair off on April 2-4 for the first round of Davis Cup. Predicting an ultimate champion is full of risk because the top stars are divided surprisingly equally among the various teams. Who wins each round will be heavily influenced by the current health, playing form, and availability of key individuals. Although two strong players can alone win a particular round, team depth is often important for final Cup victory, allowing choice of slow-court or fast-court performers according to need and providing strong backups if a top player cannot compete. At least ten nations appear to have a good chance of winning the 1999 Davis Cup.
The two-time defending champion, Sweden, seems stronger than ever. Thomas Johansson has matured into a hard-hitting all-court player, and was Sweden's strongest competitor by mid-1998. Powerful Thomas Enqvist returned from injury early this year to impressively reach the final at Melbourne. Jonas Bjorkman won the Melbourne doubles and remains a solid singles candidate. The three Magnuses--Norman, Gustafsson, and Larsson--give excellent team depth, along with Tillstrom and, for doubles, Kulti. The Swedes will be strong on slow courts, having won last year's final on Italian indoor clay, and even stronger on fast. The Swedish team at home should defeat their first-round opponent, Slovak Republic, presumably with Kucera, a strong indoor player, and Hrbaty. The Swedes should not be overconfident, because last year at Bratislava Kucera and Hrbaty both defeated Swedish opponents in the first-day's singles before eventually succumbing to Swedish depth.
The Russian team is dangerous on any surface. Kafelnikov won the Australian Open in January and almost surpassed Sampras as the world's reigning Number One in late February, and young Safin is a powerful baseline hitter with a huge serve. The two almost defeated the U.S. team last year at Atlanta, failing mainly because of Safin's inexperience. Both men must be at their best against Russia's first-round host, Germany, as the Germans too have valid Cup ambitions. Captain Boris Becker will lead two fine rising players, Haas and Kiefer, backed by an array of others just one level below. (Becker himself may play in the doubles.) Haas reached the quarters at Melbourne and was recently impressive in winning indoors in Memphis, showing a powerful serve and baseline game including a dazzling and consistent one-handed backhand. If both teams are at full strength, the choice is Russia, mainly because of Kafelnikov's experience and the variety in his game. Either Russia or Germany could be an early Davis Cup champion, if perhaps not in 1999 then surely in year 2000.
The British will be extremely strong on fast courts. Both Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski were Top Tenners in 1998, and both should be greatly aided by the fast indoor surface planned for April against the Americans in Birmingham. Indeed, if both Henman and Rusedski are healthy, the probable American singles players--Todd Martin and either Courier, Gimelstob, or Gambill-- would seem overmatched, though Martin can be expected to play close. Albeit unlikely, Martin and perhaps Gimelstob could conceivably squeeze out two wins in singles. (Gimelstob serves well, can move to net behind serve strongly, and took Philippoussis to a third-set tiebreak in San Jose in February.) Meanwhile the Americans have several, willing world-class doubles artists from whom to select, including Reneberg and Leach. (Last year's surprise pair, Johnson-Montana have been unsucessful in 1999.) The vision of Henman and Rusedski playing as doubles partners at the London indoors in late February was scarcely auspicious for U.S. hopes.
Last year, the Australians lost to Zimbabue in a stunning first-round upset. Philippoussis was absent, but the Aussies nevertheless won two of the first three matches. Rafter, however, was unable to compete on the third day, and Wayne and Byron Black of Zimbabue each won in four sets to create the upset. This year, the two nations will again meet in the first round, this time in Zimbabue. Australia's squad under team captain John Newcombe will consist of Philippousis and Rafter, the Woodys for doubles, and Lleyton Hewitt as the spare. (Gone is the controversy on the availability of Philippoussis.) The brothers Black are no pushovers, but another upset is unthinkable.
The four rubbers noted above compose the top half of the draw, which is clearly the stronger half. The Russia-Germany tie seems the most interesting, but the U.S.-Britain engagement has appeal in matching the two original nations of 1900. The Davis Cup trophy itself will be displayed at Birmingham. A Cup centennial celebration is planned in Boston for July, to coincide with the U.S. team's second-round contest if the Americans get by Britain. (Failing that, a promotion/relegation contest will probably be played.)
Meanwhile the lower half of the draw offers some interesting pairings. The French team is sound, and has home-court advantage in their first-round meeting with the Netherlands. Pioline and Raoux are strong on any surface, and should be able to prevail on slowish clay against visitors Krajicek and Siemerink. The French are also strong in slow-court doubles with Santoro-Delaitre, who are at least the equal of Haarhuis-Siemerink. The French have interesting singles depth, including Santoro (who has nice all-court skills) and Golmard, who reached the semis at Dubai in February.
Another repeat from last year's first round pits Spain against Brazil. Last year the host Brazilians took a 2-1 lead, Kuerten defeating Moya in five, Meligeni losing to Corretja in five, and the Brazilians taking the doubles. But on the third day, Corretja and then Moya won both reverse singles, enabling the Spanish to survive. (Later, Spain lost to Sweden on indoor carpet, Corretja and Moya bowing to Bjorkman and Johansson in the first-day's singles.) Corretja and Moya both finished 1998 in the Top Ten, though both have been disappointing so far in 1999. But playing at home and given the Armada's good depth, the Spanish team should certainly prevail.
Czech Republic will meet host Belgium in a match-up where neither team has realistic hope of the championship. Ulihrach has won some major matches of late, and the Czechs have good doubles strengths. The Czechs should win.
Italy reached the final last year after defeating the U.S. in Milwaukee. The Italians, however, fell quietly to Sweden when Italy's top singles performer, Gaudenzi, withdrew with major shoulder injury. Gaudenzi's recovery remains yet unproven, while the first-round opponent, Switzerland, is on the rise. Marc Rosset did unexpectedly well at Melbourne and in the early season in Europe, perhaps because of his improved conditioning, and the junior star Roger Federer defeated Ulihrach and extended Kafelnikov in Rotterdam in February. The Swiss team at home should defeat the Italians.
The eight World Group winners in April will face off in the second round in late July. The eight losers will play in a promotion/relegation round in September, joined by eight survivors of final zonal play (four nations from the Europe-Africa zone, and two each from the American and Asia-Oceania zones).
In my opinion, the winner of the Davis Cup in 1999 will be, for the first time since 1986, Australia.
FED CUP 1999
In contrast to the rich possibilities ahead in this year's Davis Cup, it now appears that only two nations--U.S.A. and France--have plausible chances of capturing Fed Cup in 1999. First-round action will occur for the top eight teams (World Group I) on April 17-18.
The U.S.A. team is the likely powerhouse. Three Americans finished 1998 in the Top Ten--Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles, and Venus Williams--and if any two of the three are available, the U.S. singles lineup will be awesome. Meanwhile, there is good depth for doubles and backup in singles among such stars as Fernandez, Raymond, Serena Williams, Morariu, and Rubin. Against the first-round opponent, Croatia, and with the availability of Lindsay Davenport having been announced, the Americans should advance in Zagreb.
Spain won the Cup in 1998 for the fifth time in eight years, but the victory was narrow. In a remarkable July semi-final against the U.S. in Madrid, and then again in the September final against Switzerland, Spain's Sanchez Vicario and Martinez both defeated the opponent's lesser singles player. With the score tied at two matches all, on both occasions the two Spanish veterans completed the team victory by winning the doubles. (In Fed Cup, the doubles match is played last.) But despite Spain's remarkable victory in 1998, the defending champions are not a serious threat this year, mainly because Sanchez Vicario has recently ruled herself out of this year's play. Still, Spain--presumably with Serna and Martinez--should advance past host Italy in the first round for a likely second-round meeting with host U.S.A.
Switzerland with Hingis and Schnyder would again be a strong co-favorite, except that Hingis has decided against Fed Cup play. The main burden will fall to Schnyder, whose career rose nicely in 1998 but has drifted sideways amid public notice of her current unconventional training methods. Unless Hingis changes her decision, the Swiss will have trouble defeating first-round opponent Slovak Republic and no chance to win the Cup.
France won the Cup in 1997 and lost in the semis last year to Switzerland, when in a controversial move French captain Yannick Noah chose Amelie Mauresmo for the singles. The 19-year-old won her first set against both Hingis and Schnyder but eventually lost both matches. If Mauresmo is now a bona fide Top Five performer, as seems possible from the evidence of Melbourne Park in January and her victory over Hingis in Paris in February, the French team should have a good chance against anyone. Besides Mauresmo, Noah could call on Nathalie Tauziat (a Top Tenner last year), Sandrine Testud (ranked #14 in 1998), or, albeit unlikely, Mary Pierce--all proven international performers. The French team will play host Russia in the first round. Kournikova did not compete in Fed Cup last year, and her absence would change a likely French first-round victory to a certainty.
Squaring away on the same weekend will be eight other nations--the members of World Group II. Two of the confrontations are of unusual interest. Steffi Graf will return to Fed Cup play, leading Germany against Japan, and Australia with Dokic and presumably Pratt will face Austria, led by Barbara Schett. The four World Group II winners will advance to a promotion/relegation round, which will also include the four first-round losers in the present World Group I.
The other nations will compete during the year in several Fed Cup qualifying meetings. Four nations will emerge from the three geographic zones and will compete later in the year with this year's four World Group II losers for membership in next year's World Group II.
My own selection as this year's Fed Cup champion, in what is almost a no-brainer, is U.S.A.
The Fed Cup began in 1963. For two decades, either Australia or the U.S. won every year. Since then, four European countries--Spain, France, Germany, and Czechoslovakia--have also shared in the winning. Traditionally, the competition was held at a single location during a single week using a three-match (two singles, one doubles) format. The present five-match format began in 1995 along with the shift to play at many locations, following the patterns of Davis Cup. The absence this year of Hingis and Sanchez Vicario is unfortunate, removing from serious contention two of the four leading nations, stalling the upward trend of Fed Cup, and scarcely strengthening women's tennis.
TOWARD THE NEXT HUNDRED YEARS
Many ideas are afloat on how to improve Davis Cup. The idea of reducing the World Group to just 14 teams probably makes sense, allowing the year's two finalists in December a decent interval before starting anew. But the notion of reducing the top World Group to just eight nations, as in Fed Cup, seems unsound, for it is clear that in 1999 many more than eight teams deserve a chance to compete for the year's championship.
The arrangement of the nations into zones and groups helps make every engagement competitively interesting, though the differences between the Davis Cup and Fed Cup schemes create confusion among ordinary fans. I dislike the high ticket prices that held down public attendance in Milwaukee last year and discouraged ordinary fanatics from attending the fine U.S.-Australia semifinal here in Washington in 1997. I approve of noisy crowd support in Cup play, but detest the occasional examples of extreme partisanship, indeed xenophobia among host audiences. I believe that tennis writers should preach to discourage such conduct. Who wins should be less important everywhere than that the competition be both hard and fair.
Without question, generous ATP points should be awarded to individuals for wins in Cup matches. But with or without this change, those top players whose goals exclude Cup play will, in my opinion, some day regret their thinking. History will write down an individual's triumphs that are achieved over opponents who continued to play Davis Cup for the good of the game.
The farflung events coming April 2-4 seem magnificent to me. Sixteen World Group nations will compete at eight locations before the close attention of their own populations and the world. Meanwhile sixteen other nations will conduct the final zonal competition at eight other sites, and there will also be lower-zonal play before yet other audiences. Does any other sport offer so widespread a spectacle in a single weekend?
If tennis and its values have worth in the scheme of things, it is Davis and Fed Cups that most draw youth in all countries to the game. I salute the players who earn the right to compete and give their best. I also salute the organizers and workers in each nation that make it happen.