The sixteen World Group nations squared off in first-round Davis Cup play, April 2-4. Wide attention went to the meeting between Great Britain and the U.S. in Birmingham, where Americans Todd Martin and Jim Courier squeezed out a narrow victory, 3 matches to 2. Courier won the deciding match against Rusedski in five sets.
The drama at Birmingham was nearly equalled elsewhere. Gustavo Kuerten won two singles and a tight doubles in Brazil's 3-2 victory over host Spain. Karol Kucera won two singles and Hrbaty defeated Enqvist in five sets for Slovak Republic in defeating last year's champion Sweden, 3-2. Meanwhile host Germany's 2-1 lead after the second day was not enough, as Russian players Kafelnikov and Safin defeated Haas and Kiefer, respectively, in straight sets on the final day. Marring the event were bitter words by Kafelnikov over line calls. Youthful Xavier Malisse won two singles in Belgium's win over Czech Republic, including a four-set victory in the deciding fifth match.
Two engagements ended 4-1--France over the Netherlands, Pioline defeating Krajicek, and Australia over Zimbabue. In both cases the losing nation made things interesting by winning the opening singles match. The only meeting that was decided before the final day was Switzerland's quick victory over the Italians, who lacked their top player, Gaudenzi, because of injury.
The closeness of the competition was decidedly healthy. Three engagements were repeats of 1998 meetings, and in each case the outcome was the opposite of last year's. The visiting nations won five engagements, the home nations three. Of the eight doubles matches, five went the full five-set distance, defying statistical probability.
Meanwhile the sixteen surviving nations of the Zonal Groups I faced off. The eight winners, who earned the right to challenge the eight World Group losers in September, included Austria (led by Koubek), Chile (led by Rios), Ecuador (led by Lapentti), and Romania (led by Pavel). Lapentti won two singles for Ecuador over a strong Argentine team, and partnered team-captain Andres Gomez in winning the doubles. In talking with Gomez a few weeks later at a senior-tour event in Richmond, I found the friendly Ecuadorian pleased to talk about his nation's victory. He had already learned that the September opponent would be the Netherlands, and he felt confident that Ecuador would have a strong chance to win.
The weekend in April had been a splendid spectacle, the 32 leading tennis nations competing almost simultaneously at 16 sites worldwide. In all, some 130 nations are participating in 1999 Davis Cup play, most of them in lower-zonal competition seeking advancement for next year.
THE OUTLOOK FOR JULY
The second round of World Group play will be held July 16-18. Slovak Republic should have an excellent chance against host Russia. Kucera's fine showing at Wimbledon, Hrbaty's at Garros, and Kafelnikof's withdrawal at Wimbledon make the Slovak team the present favorite.
Brazil with stars Kuerten and Meligeni will play host France. Despite excellent French depth, no two French players can match the Brazilian quality duo on slow clay. The matches will be played on a fast indoor surface, however, denying the Brazilians a clear advantage and probably swinging the advantage to the hosts.
Meanwhile, Switzerland will visit Belgium in a contest where neither nation has much hope of ultimately winning the Cup. A match between Malisse and Federer would be interesting, as both talented youngsters seem likely to become long-time Davis Cuppers. With veteran Rosset probably playing both singles and doubles, the Swiss team seems the stronger.
The meeting between Australia and the U.S. at Longwood, in Boston, has already claimed much attention. The event will coincide with a celebration of the first Davis Cup competition exactly 99 years ago at Longwood, where the U.S. team defeated Britain, 3 matches to 0. Then playing for the Americans was a Harvard student, Dwight F. Davis, who proposed the competition and donated the trophy.
To allow planning for the centennial celebration, two years ago all nations agreed that the U.S. would be the host nation for its July tie. Otherwise it would now have been Australia's turn to host the Americans. The Australian players protested publicly in May, but the International Tennis Federation (ITF) declined to change the venue. Meanwhile the Americans made plans to prepare a clay court for the event, a surface clearly to the advantage of the probable American players. The move seemed a shabby and unsporting idea, since both nations play their Open championships on hard courts and since the Longwood main court is presently not clay. The Australians successfully appealed to ITF, which sensibly overruled the Americans. The episodes were dreary, but they served to underline how seriously all parties take winning the competition.
Soon afterwards, Pete Sampras made it known that he, having admired the U.S. team's performance at Birmingham, would now like to help out. Explaining that he did not wish to deny Martin or Courier the singles responsibilities they had earned in defeating Britain, the world champion said he wished to volunteer for doubles only at Longwood. The other American team members replied judiciously, publicly welcoming Sampras to the cause. The episode was carried out without public rancor, perhaps reflecting orchestration by the USTA president Levering.
I congratulate Sampras for his decision, including his avowed intention to participate in future years. His presence in doubles this year could be significant to the outcome, as the Woodys have proven often vulnerable this year. (Could Rafter-Stolle be a stronger pair?) It would seem, however, that an American victory at Longwood requires that the strongest possible singles line-up also be employed, including Sampras if he is fully healthy and at his best. How this might come to pass cannot be foreseen, but one hopes a way will be found.
Basil Stafford in Melbourne, writing in our Wild Cards column, describes the huge responsibility that Pat Rafter, as national champion, bears as leader of the
sport in Australia. Rafter's is the role earlier shouldered by past Australian champions, who not only raised the game's popularity in their homeland but also
showed by example the essence of sport and sportsmanship. For any to have skipped Cup play would have been unthinkable.
FED CUP--BARELY A SHADOW
In contrast to the magnificent Davis Cup start, the opening round of Fed Cup play among the eight top nations on April 17-18 was dismal. Last year's champion, Spain, playing without either Sanchez Vicario and Martinez, went down quietly to Italy. Likewise last year's runner-up, Switzerland, lacking Hingis and Schnyder, lost even more hopelessly to Slovak Republic.
Meanwhile despite two singles wins by Mauresmo, France lost its engagement to host Russia. Finally, the U.S. team swept Croatia in an engagement played in Raleigh after a last-minute shift from Europe necessitated by the Balkans war and dulled by the absence of the young Croatian player Lucic. Chanda Rubin and Monica Seles played singles for the Americans.
The defeat of the French team makes it almost certain that the Fed Cup this year will be won by the U.S., who can additionally draw from such talent as Fernandez, Davenport, and the Williams sisters. The U.S. will meet Italy and Slovak Republic will face Russia in the semis, July 24-25.
Group One ties were held on the same weekend in April. Probably the most interesting was the meeting between Australia and Austria. Teenagers Dokic and Molik of Australia produced singles wins on the first day against their Austrian opponents Schett and Schwartz. But then the two Austrian women captured second-day singles wins over the Australian youngsters, and later combined to win the deciding doubles over Molik and Stubbs.
The Fed Cup scheme will be changed next year. The top twelve challenging nations will be divided into three groups. Each foursome will meet during a single week, and three winners will emerge. The defending nation and the three survivors will then compete in a second, championship week. Some of the competition will entail just two singles and one doubles matches.
The new arrangement seems in part a retrenchment, a stepping back from the classic Davis Cup format. Perhaps demands on the top players will be reduced, however, so that the result may be to help in resurrecting the competition from its 1999 nadir.
INTERNATIONAL TEAM PLAY
For many years after the beginning at Longwood, winning the Davis Cup was the focus of every nation's tennis year, a common goal uniting thoughts and activities of players, officials, workers, and fans. With the coming of big money to tennis, Davis and Fed Cups have become secondary to the major tournaments and the pro tour, especially among the players. The appeal of international team play has remained, however, and sporting publics in all countries avidly follow their national team's selection and play. Children interested in tennis everywhere grow up with the wish to represent their countries in Davis or Fed Cup, and they become the tennis-playing public and fandom of the future. Clearly both Cups have roles important to the health of our sport, while Fed Cup carries the additional burden of helping lead in the acceptance of women in sport in all countries.
I am not convinced that international competition in sports generally improves understanding between nations. There have been too many episodes where the quest to win produced a thoughtless fanaticism ranging from cheating to intimidation and even violence. I hope that tennis is different from other sports, and I believe it is, but only to a degree.
Another aspect deserves note. Where nation-states are made up of different ethnic groups, as we are forcibly shown sometimes, national sports teams can
have a valuable unifying influence. A good example is in the worthy roles of past black stars in American tennis--Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Zina
Garrison, MaliVai Washington--fine athletes and persons who have helped in drawing together this country's diverse society. This year the American public
greatly admired Chanda Rubin in Fed Cup, and we can expect that all fans will applaud the Williams sisters and Alexandra Stevenson when they join Rubin
and the other American players in future Cup play. Likewise the nation's pleasure upon the mixed-doubles victories of Venus Williams and Justin Gimelstob
last year not only showed how far our society has come but also produced another step in the same direction.
How sad, for example, that the many current tennis stars born in the lands that were once a greater Yugoslavia, could not have had a similar role in helping bring together this troubled region of divided ethnicities. Many emigrated as children to other lands.
Tennis officials, players, and fans for the most part honor hard and honest competitors of all nations. It is also important that in every country, tennis people seek out and encourage players of minority groups, and give them wholehearted support when they attain the level of international play. Private comments rooted in prejudice must not go unchallenged.
Who wins Davis Cup or Fed Cup 1999 is less important than the competition itself, that it be conducted with intensity and honor, and with heed to the social responsibilities of our sport.