FED CUP Review
Fed Cup: What Got Into Her?
There is an old, old folktale about a prisoner who, condemned to death, promised the king that he would teach the king's horse to sing in return for a reprieve (temporary if he failed, permanent if he succeeded). Later, another prisoner saw the condemned man singing to the horse, and asked what was the point. The first prisoner replied that he had nothing to lose. He had a year to teach the horse. Anything could happen in that time: He might die, the king might die.
Or the horse might learn to sing.
The United States illustrated this point in its first Fed Cup tie against Austria: The U. S. team imploded, and Austria won a tie in which they appeared to have no chance.
In the quarterfinal, Austria proved the value of that second chance. As well as of having a hero like Barbara Schwartz. It was Schwartz who brought Austria through this far -- even after the Capriati flare-up in the first round, Schwartz still had to win two matches to win the tie. This time, Schwartz had more support in the form of Barbara Schett. But it was still Schwartz who did the heavy lifting: She won the key match over Iva Majoli on the first day, 6-2 6-3. Schett also won her match, against Jelena Kostanic, but that was routine. Then -- Schett lost to Majoli. So Schwartz also got to clinch the tie with a 4-6 6-3 8-6 win over Kostanic.
Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario says she's tired. You'd never know it based on her Fed Cup results. Not only did she win both her matches, she won them both in three sets. First she beat Barbara Rittner 4-6 7-6 6-3 to set the tone of the tie. Then, on Sunday, she clinched it with a 3-6 6-2 6-3 win over Martina Muller. Spain went on to a 5-0 win, and didn't have to call on Sanchez-Vicario in the doubles -- but Sanchez-Vicario proved that she is still Spain's go-to player....
In England, they sing of a "heart of oak." But if anyone in this week's action needed to be firm and strong as an old oak tree, it was Belgium's Els Callens. On a proper Fed Cup team, she would have been only the #3 singles player, and the star of the doubles team. Instead, with Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin both doing other things, Callens, a month shy of 32, found herself faced with the prospect of having to play both singles and doubles, on clay -- and with her team having almost no hope unless she won all three of those matches.
Callens gave it all she could. She even won her first singles match against Rita Grande of Italy, 6-2 6-1. But there it ended. Caroline Maes lost second singles to Silvia Farina Elia, and on Sunday Callens proved unable to beat Farina Elia, and when Maes lost again, to Grande, that was all she slid. Last stands generally work better when you have someone to watch your back. Callens didn't have such a person. Both sides put out their reserves for doubles, and Italy's reserves (Adriana Serra Zanetti and Roberta Vinci) were better than Belgium's (the raw Elke Clijsters and the retired Laurence Courtois), and Italy won 4-1.
The tie between France and the Slovak Republic had a fascinating twist, in that both sides danced a little minuet around the key match. The French big gun was Amelie Mauresmo, the Slovaks', Daniela Hantuchova. They did not play each other on Day 1, so the contest was knotted at one match each after Saturday: Hantuchova beat Nathalie Dechy 7-5 7-5, while Mauresmo beat Janette Husarova 6-2 4-6 6-2.
Mauresmo and Hantuchova were the first item on day two. The surface, it will be recalled, was indoors -- good for Hantuchova, not good for Mauresmo. Hantuchova won 2-6 6-4 6-3. It showed a lot about why people hold out high hopes for Hantuchova: She is one of the few players these days with a Plan B. Having been outserved and outrallied in the first set, she took to rushing the net more. And it worked.
At this point, the score was only 2-1 for the Slovaks, with France still alive. But the Slovaks did not bring out their #2, Husarova, to play reverse singles. Instead, they went to their #3, Martina Sucha. They knew that Hantuchova had pretty well given them the tie: If Sucha lost, then they could still bring out their big guns (Hantuchova and Husarova) in doubles. It turned out not to be needed: Sucha, make her Fed Cup debut, beat Dechy 7-6 6-1, allowing Husarova to play with Henrieta Nagyova; they beat Dechy and Stephanie Foretz 7-5 6-0.
In the semifinals, Spain will face Austria and Italy will take on the Slovaks.
Ever since the United States lost to Austria in the first round, people have been second-guessing Billie Jean King. That seems harsh. There was nothing wrong with King's strategy in the earlier tie; she just didn't have a "teamly" enough team.
Playing relegation against Israel, King's strategy had a whole bunch of holes: She was relying on a Lindsay Davenport carrying eight months of rust, and on the inexperienced and weak doubles combination of Raymond and Shaughnessy. Against a stronger team, it could have cost the U. S. dear. But Israel proved to be without a Barbara Schwartz. Anna Smashnova is a good singles player (at least, she has been this year), but hardcourts are not her home, and she really didn't have any supporting players. Monica Seles beat Tzipora Obziler, then Lindsay Davenport returned to the court to beat Smashnova, and it was 2-0. On Sunday, Seles beat Smashnova, and that was that. Davenport didn't look so good against Obziler, but it didn't matter by then. The U. S. eventually won 5-0.
We talked above about the prisoner's attempt to make the horse sing. If you go to Sweden, you just might hear an opera coming out of the barn, because the impossible really did happen (indeed, it was the results from Sweden that made the author think of the story). Sweden, with Asa Svensson and Sofia Arvidsson as its top players, seemed doomed against a Swiss team of Patty Schnyder and Myriam Casanova. Even the Swedes probably weren't hoping for better than a 4-1 loss. But Arvidsson won what she herself called the match of her career to beat Schnyder 6-2 6-2. Svensson then won the one match the Swedes had real hope for; she beat the talented but raw Myriam Casanova 6-2 6-4. Sunday, sanity returned as Schnyder beat Svensson 8-6 in the third and Casanova thumped Arvidsson 6-0 6-2. But that still left the doubles. And doubles -- specifically, Schnyder's doubles -- has cost Switzerland in the past. Switzerland, in its last Fed Cup final, lost because Schnyder couldn't win even when playing with Martina Hingis. Playing with Casanova, of course, just made things worse. Sweden won the clinching match of what seemed an unwinnable tie 3-6 6-3 7-5.
If China could find a way to play a Fed Cup tie in Antarctica, or on the moon, maybe they'd have a chance. By playing in China, they found themselves facing perhaps the weakest Russian team of the past five years: Elena Dementieva, Tatiana Panova, and Elena Bovina, with no fourth. It wasn't enough of an edge. The Chinese didn't even win a set; Russia steamrolled them 5-0. The only match that was even competitive was the doubles; the Chinese didn't win more than five games in any of the four singles matches.
Hungary came into this Fed Cup tie with an interesting problem: All its players prefer clay. But they were playing Argentina, which is also a nation of clay-lovers. They played on clay anyway -- and paid the price. It didn't help that Petra Mandula wasn't feeling right, and would later withdraw from Sopot. Argentina, even with Paola Suarez on the sidelines, whipped Hungary 5-0.
Also posting a 5-0 blasting, this time by benefit of surface, was the Czech Republic. Theirs was not a particularly impressive team -- Barbora Strycova and Klara Koukalova in singles, with Strycova and someone in doubles and Iveta Benesova as third singles player. But their Canadian opponents are all primarily hardcourters-or-faster, and even so, they aren't major threats. Pelletier managed to stretch both her singles matches to three sets. Everything else ended in two.
The tie between the Ukraine and Slovenia wasn't settled 5-0, but it probably could have been. The Slovaks, behind Tina Pisnik and Maja Matevzic, steamrolled Tatiana Panova and Yulia Beygelzimer (Matevzic winning both her matches in straight sets, though Pisnik needed three sets both times). The Slovaks then turned to their second team in doubles, so the official score was 4-1, but it was really 4-0 and then the Slovaks left the building.
Doubles didn't matter as much as we thought it would in these tied; too many contests turned out to be blowouts. But for Australia, as for Sweden, an advantage in doubles proved decisive. In Saturday's singles, Miriam Oremans got the Dutch off to a good start as the beat Evie Dominikovic 6-4 6-3. But Alicia Molik evened things with a win over Kristi Boogert, 10-8 in the third. Molik put Australia in front on Sunday with a 6-2 6-3 win over Oremans. But Boogert put Dominikovic back in the goat spot with a three set win. That left the doubles. Boogert and Oremans are a decent doubles team -- but Australia has Rennae Stubbs, the #2 doubles player in the world. Australia won the match, and the tie, in two tiebreaks