Bob Larson's Preview
Women's Look Forward: Fed Cup
Here we are again, preparing to chortle about strategy.
Fed and Davis cups, as the only team competitions in tennis, are always the most "strategic" weeks in tennis: Who to put on your team, where to play them, what surface to choose if you're host. This year, it's gotten even more interesting, because of injuries.
Take the Americans, playing relegation against Israel. The American team is Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport, Meghann Shaughnessy, and Lisa Raymond. They will be playing against an Israeli team of Anna Smashnova, Tzipora Obziler, Shahar Peer, and Hila Rosen. It's an American hardcourt surface. In other words, the Americans are going to win unless another player goes AWOL, and probably even then.
Still, it's reasonable to ask which players to play. Seles, of course, will play singles, and Raymond doubles. But what about Davenport? If she's healthy, she's the best American singles player. She is also the best doubles partner for Raymond; like Raymond, she's a former doubles #1, and the two have played together regularly. Neither Seles nor Shaughnessy is in that league in doubles.
But Davenport has played about the equivalent of one singles match in her comeback, in world team tennis, and she wasn't all that good. Still, Shaughnessy also has been slumping. It probably won't matter, not in this context -- Seles should win both her singles matches, and the U. S. has only to scratch out one other singles match (and while Smashnova might have a hint of a prayer against the other U. S. players, none of the other Israelis do), or the doubles. If it were us, we'd schedule Shaughnessy in the first round of singles, Davenport and Raymond in doubles -- and hold out Davenport just in case she's needed in second singles. But, hey, we're just a game theory operation.
The tie between Australia (the host) and the Netherlands gets much more interesting, because it's a pairing where both sides love grass. A strong case can be made that the best grass-court player in the tie is Miriam Oremans of the Netherlands, though she's at the very end of her career. And Oremans is used to playing doubles with Kristie Boogert. The Australians have the best doubles player in the field in Rennae Stubbs, but she'll be playing with an unfamiliar partner. The Australians were supposed to have the top-ranked singles player in Nicole Pratt, and Alicia Molik led the WTA in grass wins last year -- but both stumbled on grass this year. And Pratt is now out, replaced by Christine Wheeler. This one could be complicated.
Russia, which will play at China, is fielding a team rather in shambles. Elena Dementieva and Tatiana Panova are here, with Elena Bovina, but their #1 doubles player (Elena Likhovtseva) and #2 singles player (Anastasia Myskina) are out. This is a very weak group in doubles. Russia will probably still win, just because the Chinese (Jie Zheng, Na Li, Nannan Liu, Zi Yan) are so weak. Zheng and Yan might win the doubles, but that's likely to be about it. But Russia should be a formidable team -- and look what they actually fielded. (This tells you a lot about the problems with Fed Cup venues: Russia usually gets a very good turnout from its players; they've been leaving Panova off the team even though she's been one of their top singles players for several years. Now they're desperate, so here she is.)
The tie between Hungary, the host, and Argentina gains interest because of the absence from the Argentine team of Paola Suarez. Argentina still has the best overall player in Clarisa Fernandez; it also has Mariana Diaz-Oliva, who just won Palermo, and doubles specialist Laura Montalvo, plus Maria Emilia Salerni. They will face the weaker Hungarian team of Petra Mandula, Zsofia Gubacsi (who is slumping), Aniko Kapros (who has done nothing to back up her Roland Garros result), and Kira Nagy. On a neutral court, all odds would be with Argentina. If Argentina had Suarez, even the fact that they're playing in Hungary wouldn't matter. Without Suarez -- well, it just might be tight.
The Swiss team which takes on Sweden of course lacks Martina Hingis, and that could hurt them in doubles even more than singles. Plus one of their better young players, Marie-Gaianeh Mikaelian, is boycotting. The Swiss still look solid with Patty Schnyder as their #1 singles player. The real question, apart from doubles, is who to play as #2: Emannuelle Gagliardi, their top player behind Schnyder, or Myriam Casanova, who has been white-hot lately. (Their fourth player, Myriam's sister Daniela, probably won't be involved until things are settled -- if then.) In practice, facing a Swedish team of Asa Svensson, Sofia Arvidsson, Maria Wolfbrand, and Aleksandra Smdovic, it probably won't matter.
Slovenia may not seem like a Fed Cup powerhouse, but the Ukrainians can't be looking forward to facing Tina Pisnik and Maja Matevzic (plus Petra Rampre and Ajda Brumen), especially in Slovenia. The Ukrainian team counters with Tatiana Perebibiynis, Elena Tatarkova, Yulia Beygelzimer, and Alyona Bondarenko. Tatarkova is a good doubles player, but there isn't much else intimidating about that team. Whereas Pisnik and Matevzic are both on the rise, and ranked far higher than the Ukranians.
Clay may be big for the Czechs as they take on the Canadians. Canada has a very fastcourt-happy team: Vanessa Webb is a serve-and-volleyer, and Maureen Drake is also something of a netrusher, and Jana Nejedly and Marie-Eve Pelletier, while not as aggressive, are more accustomed to hardcourts. Whereas the Czechs, though they are missing all their top players (including Daja Bedanova and their best doubles player Kveta Hrdlickova) at least have a clay-loving team of Iveta Benesova, Klara Koukalova (last week's Casablanca finalist), Petra Cetkovska, and Barbora Strycova. Doubles looks like a problem for both sides, though Strycova just won the Wimbledon junior doubles with Elke Clijsters.
Columbia is through as a result of the withdrawal by Japan.
But that's the lower levels. What about the upper echelons, we hear you muttering.
That gets interesting, too. Take Belgium. They should be the powerhouse of the tie. But they aren't. They'll be playing without Justine Henin or Kim Clijsters. That gives them a team of Els Callens, Laurence Courtois, Caroline Maes, and Elke Clijsters. Callens is a great doubles player, but (despite her Wimbledon showing against Serena Williams) her singles has fallen off, and she's a fast court player anyway. Courtois is retired. (Mostly.) Maes is a non-factor, and while Elke Clijsters just won the Wimbledon junior doubles, her pro results are so bad they're almost scary (hard to believe she and sister Kim share genes).
And they'll be playing Italy on clay. Until recently, that might not have been bad; Italy had managed to anger all its top singles players. But they're over that. The Italians are out in full force: Silvia Farina Elia, Rita Grande, and Adriana Serra Zanetti, plus doubles specialist Roberta Vinci (they were supposed to have Francesca Schiavone, but she hurt herself. This might actually help the Italians, though; Vinci is perhaps their best doubles player, and they were weak in doubles). The Belgians might eke a win out of Callens and Courtois, or Callens and somebody, in doubles. But it's hard to imagine them winning even half the singles matches.
Austria vs. Croatia is another complicated tie. The Austrians finally have their #1, Barbara Schett, back -- though she hasn't been playing very well this year. They also have Barbara Schwartz, the big gun who beat the U. S. Patricia Wartusch just won Casablanca. Evelyn Fauth probably won't have much to do.
Against them, the Croats have Iva Majoli -- competing with Schett for most inconsistent -- Jelena Kostanic, Silvija Talaja, and Karolina Sprem. Both teams have problems in doubles, though the Austrians, with Schett and Schwartz, look better off. But it will probably depend on how many matches Schwartz can win. If she can beat Majoli, that will be that. If she can't, it's wide open.
Spain vs. Germany on paper looks like a blowout. Spain has Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Magui Serna, Marta Marrero, and Virginia Ruano Pascual; Germany, Martina Muller, Marlene Weingartner, Barbara Rittner, and Bianca Lamade. They're playing on clay in Spain. (Of course, the Germans like clay, too.) But there are big complications. Sanchez-Vicario and Ruano Pascual are top doubles players, but Sanchez-Vicario is also the top singles player and she's been talking about exhaustion lately. A lot. She skipped Wimbledon, and said she was tired in the Brussels final. Is she up to playing singles and doubles? Is she even up to playing two singles matches? If not, who does play?
And Germany has some cards of its own: Rittner is an upset artist, and a good doubles player. She could potentially make life interesting.
If it were us, we'd play Serna and Marrero in singles, with Sanchez-Vicario and Ruano Pascual in doubles, saving Sanchez-Vicario for an emergency in singles. But we're probably too sneaky. Just don't blame us if Sanchez-Vicario runs out of gas.
The French team that's preparing to go up against the Slovaks has been hit hard by retirements. At this time last year, they had three Top Twenty players (Mauresmo, Tauziat, Testud). Two of them, in fact, were Top Ten. And Tauziat and Testud were both good doubles players. But Tauziat (who has had her troubles with her teammates anyway) is retired from singles, and Testud (who is pregnant) is retired also, and that leaves Mauresmo plus Nathalie Dechy, Emilie Loit, and Stephanie Foretz. Dechy is putting her game back together, but she's still inconsistent. Loit is having the run of her life, but she hurt her shoulder at Brussels. And none of these women are top doubles players.
And the match is being played indoors, and that definitely hurts Mauresmo, the French powerhouse. And the Slovak team is very solid: Daniela Hantuchova gets all the attention, but Janette Husarova is having her best-ever year in singles, and Martina Sucha is also on her way up. It says something that Henrieta Nagyova, with eight career titles, is the #4 player on this team. If the Slovaks have problems, it's that Husarova has been hurt and Nagyova slumping. But a Hantuchova/Husarova team really should win the doubles. Hantuchova and Mauresmo should really win their singles matches not against each other. That leaves their match with each other, and the reverse singles. This one may well come down to the wire.
What's really interesting, to us, is how many of these ties may come down to the doubles. We're looking at twelve ties. Several should be blowouts (of course, we said that about the U. S. versus Austria, which just shows that really weird things can happen): the U. S. should stomp Israel, Russia should blast China, the Swiss should blow through Sweden, Slovenia should handle the Ukranians, the Italians should trounce the Belgians. And Columbia is through. But Australian vs. the Netherlands, Hungary vs. Argentina, Czech Republic vs. Canada, Austria vs. Croatia, Spain vs. Germany, and France vs. the Slovaks are all close. Several would not be close if it weren't for weaknesses on the doubles side. That might be something to think about as the Tours continue to sink the knife into doubles.