Follow The Leader: US Fed Cup Team Looks To Seles For Leadership
Photo By Fred Mullane By Richard Pagliaro
The stuffed animal collection Monica Seles maintains is a reminder of the innocence of a player who turned pro at 15 years of age, but it is Seles' experience in capturing nine Grand Slam championships and competing in countless major matches that has cast her in the role of leader of the US Fed Cup team.
The fourth-ranked Monica Seles leads an American squad that includes ninth-ranked Lindsay Davenport, 19th-ranked Meghann Shaughnessy and 28th-ranked Lisa Raymond and hosts Israel in the Fed Cup World Group playoff at the Cooper Tennis Complex in Springfield, Missouri this weekend.
The best-of-five-match tie will be held on a hard court with two singles matches scheduled for Saturday and two singles and one doubles match to follow on Sunday. Davenport, who returned to competition in a World TeamTennis tie last week, said Seles' leadership will be critical to the Americans' success in their quest to return to World Group play.
"“We’re really hoping Monica can lead us this weekend and get us the three points we need,” Davenport said.
At the start of the year, the leadership role on the squad seemed suited for then top-ranked Jennifer Capriati, but Capriati's contentious clash with US captain Billie Jean King in which an irate Capriati reportedly cursed out King in a rift over Capriati's violating a team rule prohibiting private practice sessions, resulted in the two-time Australian Open champion being kicked off the team the day before the US hosted Austria in its first-round Fed Cup tie.
As a result of Capriati's dismissal from the squad, the Americans were forced to forfeit Capriati's scheduled singles match against 139th-ranked Evelyn Fauth on Saturday, which left the US facing a 1-0 deficit before a single shot was struck. Barbara Schwartz extended the lead to 2-0 for Austria when she fought off five set points to stun Seles 7-6 (9-7), 6-2. The 75th-ranked Schwartz clinched Austria's upset as she staved off a match point against Meghann Shaughnessy before prevailing with a dramatic 4-6, 7-6, 9-7 victory to give Austria an insurmountable 3-0 lead and hand the heavily-favored Americans a devastating defeat.
Despite the defeat, the US players remained united in their support of King's decision and suggested Capriati's actions caused her to be bounced from the team.
"I just feel the right decision was made," Seles said. "I mean, I had my coach there and I understood the rules. The rules were explained to me. I obliged. We're all here as a team and we need to focus on our tennis, not the distractions. It's just becoming too much. The week was just really difficult for all of us."
As the US returns to action this week to begin its campaign to recapture the Cup in 2003 the team seems to have a new unity.
“We had trouble in Charlotte, and I had to let (Capriati) go,” King said. “I knew it would be difficult, but it was a short-term loss for a long-term gain. This particular team is very close. All four of them are united and ready to go. Monica has always been there to answer the call.”
In many ways, Seles' character contrasts sharply with Capriati's: cooperative rather than confrontational, accommodating rather than autocratic and serene rather than severe, Seles is an ideal team player. But for all of her positive personal qualities, Seles knows she must still produce victory on the court.
The addition of Davenport diminishes some of the burden Seles will shoulder in singles. Davenport has been one of the world's dominant Fed Cup players in recent years, producing a 21-2 record in her eight-year Fed Cup career. Davenport, Seles and Raymond were key members of the US team that captured its last Fed Cup championship as Davenport beat both Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and Conchita Martinez to help the US sweep Spain in the 2000 Fed Cup final in Las Vegas.
The former top-ranked Davenport, who celebrated her 26th birthday on June 8th, underwent surgery to repair cartilage damage in her right knee in January. She sustained the injury during the November 3rd semifinals of the Sanex WTA Championships in Munich, Germany and has not played a WTA Tour match since that victory over Kim Clijsters.
“I don’t exactly know how well I’m going to play, but that’s why we’re looking for Monica to lead us,” Davenport said with a laugh. “I am confident with my game, and that I can reach a high level (in the tie).”
Anna Smashnova, ranked 18th, leads an unheralded Israeli team that includes veterans Tzipi Obziler and Hila Rosen as well as 15-year-old Shaha Peer, who has played one Fed Cup match. The 29-year-old Obziler is ranked No. 377, while the 24-year-old Rosen has compiled a 24-17 career Fed Cup record.
It's a big challenge for us, but we're looking forward to it," Smashnova said.
Rosen recognizes the enormous edge in experience Seles and Davenport bring to tie.
"Anything can happen," Rosen said. "But Monica is Monica and Lindsay is Lindsay. We’ll have to play very well.”
The winning nations in the World Group Playoffs secure spots in the 2003 World Group, while the losing countries will be relegated to their respective Regional Qualifying Group I events.
"This is a critical match for the United States as we seek to return to the Fed Cup World Group," King said. "We promise to field an outstanding team in Springfield to begin our quest for the 2003 Fed Cup championship."
The United States won its only prior Fed Cup meeting with Israel, 3-0, in the first round in 1976 in Philadelphia. King was the player-captain of the team that year.