(he's missed some player changes but still a good read)
Fed Cup Preview and Zonal Results
Last year, the ITF worked very hard to convince the WTA to award points from the Olympics. Despite sound mathematical reasons not to do so (the Olympic draw does not follow WTA admissions rules, and it happens only once every four years, meaning that it distorts the rankings), the WTA went along. There were two basic reasons for this. One was that it would let more players from each country play the Olympics (reducing though not eliminating the admissions problem). The other was that, it was hoped, giving points for the Olympics would cause more players to volunteer for Fed Cup, which is in effect the qualifying tournament.
It doesn't appear the ITF needed to worry about that.
Kim Clijsters doesn't need points; she has more points than she knows what to do with. (She could use a Slam or two, but that's another matter.) But she's so pantingly eager to play the Olympics that she volunteered to play Fed Cup while her hand was still in a cast.
Any ordinary team would of course have turned her down flat. Belgium
is no ordinary team. When they have Justine Henin-Hardenne and a healthy Clijsters, they have an incredible singles pairing. But below them, there is nothing. Els Callens is a pretty good doubles player and can sometimes sneak out a singles win on a fast court, but she's really at best a #3 player -- the emergency singles fill-in and #2 player on the doubles team. Take away the Big Two, though, and she's all Belgium has. Elke Clijsters is not in her sister's league, Kirsten Flipkens is only slightly better, and there are no other alternatives.
And they're facing a Croatian
team that's in its best form ever. Karolina Sprem is a new-minted Top 30 player and Jelena Kostanic is at a career high. They don't have much below that -- Silvija Talaja is fairly good on clay (and they're playing on indoor clay in Bree, Belgium), but you know Croatia was desperate when they named Iva Majoli. But unless Clijsters can play, Sprem and Kostanic should be plenty of team.
As of press time, there had been no final announcement of the line-up, since action does not begin until Saturday. Clijsters, it is reported, will not decide until Friday whether she is able to play. We don't have announcements of who will play what roles for the other teams, either, though in most cases we can guess.
The situation for the United States
is almost eerie in its similarity to Belgium's, though it has more fallback talent, so the effect is not as noticeable. Venus and Serena Williams were supposed to be on the team to ensure their Olympic eligibility. Venus is in, but Serena is off the team with injury (and a small corner of our minds says that that's good, because it might open a door for Corina Morariu, who plays doubles, to be on the Olympic team rather than the Williams Sisters, who have played exactly one doubles event in the past year, and lost it). And while the Americans do have plenty of other players, Serena's withdrawal came late enough that it was hard to find a replacement. The Americans still have Venus Williams, who finally looks to be in form again, but their #2 singles player is now Lisa Raymond, who also will play doubles with Martina Navratilova if it comes to that. Laura Granville rounds out the team but has no real role.
Given that they're playing on clay in Slovenia
, that just might spell trouble, given how much Raymond dislikes clay. The flip side is, the Slovene team is a mess. Their #1 singles player is Tina Pisnik, who is always inconsistent. For #2, they were looking at Katarina Srebotnik, struggling after a brief injury, or Maja Matevzic, just returning from a very long injury. Tina Krizan would play doubles with Srebotnik (which might argue for letting Matevzic play second singles, at least on Sunday). If the Slovenes were really in top form, their chances might look better -- Matevzic's assortment of junk might get to Venus, or they might win the doubles and beat Raymond in both her singles matches. As it is, injuries may well cost them even more than they cost the Americans.
Surface is almost certain to be the key as Argentina
Each side has one top player: Paula Suarez for the hosts, Ai Sugiyama for the Japanese. In addition to being Top 15 singles players, they're both Top Three doubles players. They have a real shortage of supporting cast. Sugiyama is backed up by Saori Obata, Shinobu Asagoe, and Akiko Morigami (the first two Top 50 and Morigami not much short), the Argentines by a much weaker lineup of Gisela Dulko, Mariana Diaz-Oliva, and Patricia Tarabini. On any surface but clay, you'd have to like Japan: Even assuming Suarez won both her matches (by no means certain), the Japanese would take the other two, and a Sugiyama/Asagoe doubles team is probably stronger than Suarez/Nobody. But the clay is a genuine equalizer; the Japanese like things fast (Obata and Asagoe both won grass Challengers last year, and Asagoe was the Birmingham finalist and beat Hantuchova at Wimbledon, but Asagoe is 1-4 on dirt in the past year and Obata's clay record over the last three years was 0-2 at the WTA level; Morigami, with a 2-4 record in the past twelve months and a title a year ago at the Dothan Challenger, may be their best clay bet even though she's the lowest-ranked). Suarez is the favorite to win both her matches, and the Argentines can probably scrounge one of the others.
The only surface that would help Germany
though, would be something that could make all the French disappear. France's team was announced as Amelie Mauresmo, Nathalie Dechy, Mary Pierce, and Emilie Loit -- three Top 30 players (all but Pierce), and Pierce is Top 30 when she plays a full schedule. And they're fairly solid in doubles, too, especially Loit. Against them, Germany announced a team of Marlene Weingartner, Anna-Lena Groenefeld, Julia Schruff, and Barbara Rittner. It will tell you something that the French picked an indoor court. But it won't tell you much, because the French would be favored on everything this side of saurkraut. If Rittner is in better playing shape than we thought, the Germans might have a faint hope in the doubles. That's about it.
which is hosting the Slovaks
on clay in St. Poelten, is mostly hoping for miraculous recoveries. Barbara Schett has been playing a little better this year than last, but that's not saying much. Barbara Schwartz is a force when she's healthy, but she hasn't been able to get back in form this year. Patricia Wartusch is a fairly good doubles player. But the Slovaks, even though they have no stars, are more solid all around. Janette Husarova is a terrific doubles player, and can probably win the doubles point no matter who she plays with. Ludmila Cervanova is a solid veteran who likes clay; Lubomira Kurhajcova and Martina Sucha are slightly younger, and inconsistent, but unless Austria has somehow gotten its two Barbaras into much better form than they've shown lately, the Slovaks look to have the advantage.
which is playing against Spain
on Spanish clay, be hoping having a Martina along will help them morally? It's the only reason we can see for taking Martina Lautenschlager, who is unranked and has no experience we can recall. Admittedly there isn't much else available, given that Marie-Gayanay Mikaelian has rather poor relations with the Swiss Federation, but at least a Swiss youngster named Timea Bacsinszky just had a nice Challenger win at Dinan.
The Swiss actually have the top singles player in the tie in Patty Schnyder (and won't it be interesting to see her face Conchita Martinez again), but they fade fast below that. Myriam Casanova is currently their #3 singles player (making her the #2 player on the team, with Mikaelian unavailable), and their #1 doubles player; Emmanuelle Gagliardi is the doubles #2 and is #4 in singles. But other than Schnyder in first singles, there were no obvious combinations there. Without seeing them in practice, we'd be inclined to put Gagliardi at #2 in singles (she did, after all, have a memorable win over Martinez at the Australian Open three years ago, and beat Clijsters at Rome in that same year) and have Casanova and Gagliardi play doubles
The Spanish of course have Martinez for first singles. Maria Sanchez Lorenzo is #2. Virginia Ruano Pascual will play doubles with someone. And, on clay, Marta Marrero isn't a bad fourth.
these days is so strong that they could probably form three competitive Fed Cup teams. (In fact, we can prove they can; see the footnote at the end of the article.) The one they've come up with to host Australia
(on carpet) is more than a little fascinating. Anastasia Myskina is their top singles player, but she's been out for several weeks and may be out of form. Nadia Petrova is their new #2, though she seems to be wearing down. Their #3, Elena Dementieva, is not here -- probably resting. That makes Vera Zvonareva the #3 singles player. Svetlana Kuznetsova is their #4 singles player and their #1 doubles player. They've left off their #2 doubles player (Elena Likhovtseva, who has been playing with Kuznetsova); Petrova is their #3. It's probably not their ideal lineup -- we'd have gone with Myskina and Petrova for singles, Kuznetsova and Likhovtseva for doubles, with Petrova the backup doubles player and Kuznetsova the singles backup (which would probably set some sort of record for best backup team). But what they have is intimidating enough.
Australia has a pretty good team of its own, really; Alicia Molik has finally come into her own, Rennae Stubbs is a great doubles player, Nicole Pratt a canny veteran who can play singles or doubles, and Samantha Stosur still looks like her serve can take her places. On grass, or against another team, they could be formidable. Unfortunately, neither situation applies.
You don't often see a team as young as the lineup the Czech Republic
will be sending to Italy
to play on clay. Nicole Vaidisova is just starting her career, and Barbora Strycova isn't much older. Even Klara Koukalova is fairly new; their closest thing to a veteran is 24-year-old Libuse Prusova, and even she doesn't have much big match experience (as a matter of fact, she played only one WTA match this year, as a qualifier at the Australian Open, and lost to Emmanuelle Gagliardi). Italy's #1, Silvia Farina Elia, has (by our count) more WTA experience than the whole Czech team combined. And she will have solid support from Francesca Schiavone, with Maria Elena Camerin and Mara Santangelo rounding out the team. It's hard to know just how good those Czechs are; Strycova still has only five WTA events (and she qualified for all of them, posting a solid 7-5 record in main draws as well as earning wins over Daniilidou and Smashnova); Vaidisova has only two
WTA events. Koukalova has the most experience, really -- about 40 events over the past three years. But she also has a losing record at those events.
The Europe/Africa Zone I Group, played in Athens using the round-robin best-of-three format, had some interesting results. Group A consisted of Serbia and Montenegro, Sweden, and Lithuania. Sweden was operating without Asa Svensson, but Sofia Arvidssson and Hanna Nooni were still able to beat Lithuania 3-0. Serbia and Montenegro, with the Jelenas (Dokic and Jankovic) playing singles and Ana Timotic and Dragana Zaric doubles, beat Lithuania 3-0 also.
Group B had a proper lineup of four teams: Israel, Netherlands, South Africa, Ukraine. Israel's team of Anna Smashnova-Pistolesi and Tzipora Obziler easily handled the Netherlands (losing only one set, in doubles, their obvious weak point). South Africa, playing without Amanda Coetzer, lost on day two, 2-1 to Ukraine. Day Three saw Israel beat South Africa 2-1 and Ukraine beat the Netherlands by the same score.
Group C was also a three-team group, Hungary, Belarus, and Denmark. This was another weak field, Belarus beat Denmark 3-0 on day 1 and Hungary beat the Danes by the same score on day 2.
Group D featured host country Greece, plus Bulgaria, Estonia, and Poland. Greece, with Eleni Daniilidou, seemed like the powerhouse of the section -- but she was playing with Christina Zachariadou, and that proved too much to overcome. After Estonia beat Bulgaria 2-1 on Monday, Greece fell to Poland 2-1 on Tuesday, with Daniilidou of course winning Greece's one point. On Wednesday, they lost their second tie: Young talent Sesil Karatancheva, of the big game and big mouth, beat Daniilidou 4-6 6-3 7-5, and the Bulgarians came through 2-1. Estonia, meanwhile, improved its record to 2-0 with a 2-1 victory over Poland.
As of this writing, the ITF has been completely silent about the outcome of Thursday's Zonal matches; we'll have to wait until the weekend to cover them.
We aren't going to say much about the lower zonal ties; Luxembourg has a Top 100 player in Claudine Schaul, and a former Top 25 player in Anne Kremer, but that's about it. The only team where we've so much as heard of all the players is Great Britain, so we can't offer a real preview.
In off-the-court news, we have to note that it wouldn't be Fed Cup if they weren't fiddling with the format. At least they aren't changing the number of matches in the tie (that we've heard), or playing it all on Mars, or some such. But the main draw field is supposed to be reduced to be reduced to eight in 2005. In one sense, it's reasonable; Germany, e.g., really doesn't belong at the same level as France or Belgium or the United States. On the other hand, it's still a much stronger team than most in the zonals....
Given that they still have a whole year to come up with more changes, we'll leave it at that.
FOOTNOTE: Alternate Russian Fed Cup teams. We construct these based on existing (or past Fed Cup) doubles teams, plus trying to make them as equal as possible. Alternate team 1: Elena Dementieva and Lina Krasnoroutskaya, doubles; Dementieva, first singles; Dinara Safina, second singles; Krasnoroutskaya, singles alternate; Vera Douchevina or Maria Kirilenko, second alternate. Alternate team 2: Elena Likhovtseva and Elena Bovina, doubles; Maria Sharapova, first singles; Bovina, second singles; Likhovtseva, singles alternate; Tatiana Panova, second alternate.
Note that, apart from the second singles alternates, all of these players are Top 50 in singles (and in fact all of them except Douchevina and Kirilenko have been Top 30 in singles at some time); every doubles team includes at least one former Top 10 doubles player and one other who has been Top 30.
You could create an equivalent set of teams for the Americans (Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, Monica Seles, and Chanda Rubin give the United States six former Top Ten singles players, and Martina Navratilova, Lisa Raymond, Davenport, Corina Morariu, and the Williams Sisters also give them adequate doubles teams, with no fewer than four past #1 doubles players) -- but only if you could get them all healthy and willing to play. It says something about that list that the Americans ended up naming Laura Granville to their team: Serena and Seles and Rubin are hurt and Capriati isn't coming back; Davenport is resting. Whereas every Russian we've listed, except for the youngsters Sharapova, Douchevina, and Kirilenko, has played for Russia, usually fairly regularly. We'd hate to be the person in charge of choosing Russia's Olympic team -- as things stand, they will have to leave a Top 15 player off the singles squad. And, by the time the Olympics rolls around, it might even be two....