US team in relaxed form for Fed Cup tie
Slovak Republic's shaky defense
By Matthew Cronin
FROM THE FED CUP IN LOWELL, MASS. – How great is the US team chemistry at Fed Cup this week?
So good that last night, after the USTA official dinner, Venus and Serena Williams, Alexandra Stevenson and Meghann Shaughnessy, plus the team coaches and hitting partners laughed all the way back to the hotel after Serena broke a heel on her pump. The humor surrounded imagining how silly Serena would have looked limping around the dinner while thanking the mayor of Lowell, and then crashing into the Czech team while presenting them with Crystal Tiffany Bow Boxes.
"We were thinking how funny it would have been if Serena had walked out there with her heel off," Venus told ********************. "It was so funny. But if she would have gotten injured, now that wouldn’t have been funny."
Venus was in a great mood on Friday, either due to the fact that her Italian male friend is with her or because she looks fabulous in her new, bangs-down-to-the-eyes, "Heidi Klum" haircut. "I like to be different," she said. "I was tired of the same style and my old style was so hard to deal with."
The bubbly Stevenson was in rare form on Friday, giving away the name and floor of the hotel the team is staying at to Lowell residents. Captain Billie Jean King smiled a lot, Shaughnessy was quite chummy and coach Zina Garrison was light and airy.
It’s a far cry from last year’s tie in Charlotte, N.C., when thick tension permeated the air. Jennifer Capriati, who was kicked off last year’s team for violating team rules, is not on this squad and her strong-willed dad/coach, Stefano, isn’t around either.
"This is a dream for how a team should get along and how a week should go," Garrison said. "Venus has stepped in and taken control as a leader and they are all getting along great. They never stop laughing together. … For me it was a turning point. [Last year] I was thinking, ‘If it's going to be like this every week, will it be worth it?’ Everyone was so stressed out that week it was almost impossible. They could have brought in players from anywhere with canes and they would beaten us. Everyone was acting out and acting differently because of all the pressure that was around because of what was happening with Jennifer and her father."
Added Shaughnessy, who lost the clincher to Barbara Schwartz that weekend, "We had a great team there as well but what happened with Jennifer put a damper on things. It was really a shame. I’ll never forget that experience. I’m over it now. But I learned a lot from losing a tough match under pressure. A lot of disappointing things happened that week. If I have to narrow down this week to one thing, it’s laughter. We’ve been joking and playing pranks on each other. This is a great group."
WILLIAMS & WILLIAMS REAPPEAR
This is the first appearance for the Williams sisters in Fed Cup since 1999 when they helped lead the US to the title over Russia. Venus said that heavy scheduling on the regular tour has made it difficult for Serena and her to commit in the past three years.
"I've always wanted to play, but with the way the schedule is, sometimes it's tough to make a commitment so early," Venus said. "And sometimes I do take a week to rest. But it definitely is a high priority for me and probably for Serena also. We love being here and love being with the other players also. The whole experience is what you take to memory for the rest of your life."
Venus said she is reveling being in a team environment again. "Serena, myself and Alexandra are extremely silly," she said. "All we do is laugh and joke all day. Meghann is quiet and soft-spoken, but now she’s joining in on the fun and nonsense. With Serena and Alexandra, I can’t keep up with them they are so crazy."
Do the Czechs have a chance? On Saturday, Daja Bedanova will open play against Venus Williams and 71st-ranked Iveta Benesova will go up against Serena.
The 20-year-old Bedanova, who made a name for herself when she upset Monica Seles in the third round of the '01 US Open, is 0-2 against Venus, while Serena and Benesova has never played. But Bedanova, who reached a career high ranking of No. 16 last year, is off to a lousy start in 2003, going 5-12 in her matches. She’s says it’s her confidence that’s shaky.
"I hope so," she said. "It wasn't the best year for me but I'm going to try to do my best here. I hope it's gonna turn around. I’ve played Venus and Serena before, so I know how it's gonna feel to be on the court against them. It's very tough to beat them. We'll just try to surprise them."
Benesova faces a tall task against Serena Williams, who has lost only one match this year. The left-hander reached the semifinals of Hobart at the beginning of the year and reached the quarterfinals of Budapest last week.
"It's a great experience for me," Benesova said. "I'll try to do my best. She's No. 1, the best player. I just want to enjoy every single point."
Slovak Republic's shaky defense
On paper, it's hard to find many competitive World Group airings, but there are a couple. Defending champ Slovak Republic facing the toughest challenge, playing away from home on a fast indoor surface in Ettenheim, Germany. Daniela Hantuchova, the 2002 heroine, is in an awful slump and her teammate, Ludmila Cervanova, hasn't knocked anyone's socks off yet. Germany’s Anca Barna is unproven and talented and her countrywoman, Marlene Weingartner, is more than capable of winning a couple matches. This one smells like an upset.
Austrians Barbara Schett and Barbara Schwartz aren't in Bree to face the Belgians, so it's up to Patricia Wartusch and Evelyn Fauth to pull off a miracle against Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne. It's not going to happen.
For whatever reason, it always seems like the Spaniards are playing in Spain. This time they are situated on clay in Tarragona, where the ancient, but game Conchita Martinez and scrappy Magui Serna will face off against Australia, headed by the revived Alicia Molik and veteran Nicole Pratt. Spain gets the serious edge here, but should Molik manage two wins in singles, the doubles match between Anabel Medina-Garrigues/Virginia Ruano Pascual and Molik/Rennae Stubbs should be a barnburner. After all, Ruano Pascual is now one of the top five doubles players in the world and Stubbs holds a Hall of Fame doubles resume.
Even though Russia is heavily favored against Croatia indoors in Moscow, punchers' Iva Majoli and young Karolina Sprem have chances against Anastasia Myskina and Elena Dementieva. The pressure on the Russians playing at home will be enormous and both Dementieva and Myskina have been known to take an apple off a full cart.
France is a fair-sized favorite over Columbia at the Palais de Sports des Bullieux in Andrezieux-Boutheon, France, but Amelie Mauresmo is always in danger of suffering an injury and Columbia's Fabiola Zuluaga is much more talented than her ranking lets on. God help the French should Mauresmo get hurt and they have to turn to the mentally fragile Nathalie Dechy as their leader.
Argentina is going to sorely miss Paola Suarez in its home tie in Pliar against Slovenia. Katarina Srebotnik and Tina Pisnik have to be considered the favorites leading the way against Argentine greenhorns Maria-Emilia Salerni and Natalia Garbellotto.
Even though Silvia Farina-Elia and Francesca Schiavone are skipping Italy's tie against Sweden, Italy’s Flavia Pennetta and Antonella Serra Zanetti are more accomplished players than obscure Swedes Sofia Arvidsson and Hanna Nooni. However, the tie is being played at the Stangebro Icepalace in Linkoping and we know how much how much the warm-blooded Italians' like dodging Zamboni's when going for a running forehands.