Fed Cup Preview (Bob Larson)
Fed Cup Preview
The ITF, in recent years, has started producing Davis Cup rankings. This is reasonable, since it's a numeric way of summing up just how well teams have done lately.
But the usual purpose of rankings is to seed events -- i.e. to try to guess just which teams are most likely to advance and do well. We spent some time thinking about that -- maybe we'll even turn that into a column someday -- but two basic points emerged which make it almost impossible to produce good Fed Cup rankings. First, that the sample is too small (it's theoretically possible that the second-best team could face the U. S. in the first round, and go down in flames, and there goes its ranking; we need a lot more ties to get a really accurate ranking). And second, that any rankings applied to whole teams will be problematic, because they depend on the surface and the venue and on just who turns out. Belgium, for instance, is a powerhouse when Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne play. Take them away, and they're an also-ran.
But the team most likely to be afflicted by no-show-itis is Argentina, which will be hosting Slovenia. If Paola Suarez were on the Argentine team, and they were playing on clay (which is, of course, the surface they chose), they would be a significant force. Suarez is a Top 30 singles player, and is Top 20 (probably Top 15) on clay. And she's the world's #1 doubles player. A Suarez-led Argentine team would be expected to beat all but the most elite teams (Belgium, France, etc.). Problem is, Suarez isn't playing. Neither is Clarisa Fernandez, ranked higher than Suarez in singles (though far less consistent, even on clay, and not much of a doubles player). In fact, there isn't a Top 150 player on the Argentine team; they will be playing Maria Emilia Salerni and Natalia Garbollotto (and if you know anything about Garbolloto, you're better off than we are; she is currently ranked #697, with 12.25 points in three events, meaning that she's actually won some matches, but she's at best a prospect).
And the Slovenes, while they don't have any players in the Suarez league, have a much deeper team: Katarina Srebotnik is their #1 singles player, and she and Tina Krizan are one of the most regular doubles teams on the circuit. Playing #2 singles for them is Tina Pisnik, another solid player if not spectacularly good. We're a bit surprised that Maja Matevzic, the #2 Slovene, isn't playing in singles or doubles (she is listed as on the team), but it really shouldn't matter to the outcome. Frankly, this looks like a 5-0 sweep.
The schedules for the other ties have not yet been announced, but we do have the teams, so we can at least examine the prospects for each team.
The Czech Republic has the unenviable task of facing the United States on an American indoor hardcourt. The American team is rather interesting: It features both Williams Sisters -- and none of the other American regulars except Meghann Shaughnessy. Lindsay Davenport, Lisa Raymond, Chanda Rubin, and Monica Seles all chose not to participate, and of course Jennifer Capriati and captain Billie Jean King are not on the best terms. Given that the Americans are likely to blow through this tie, you have to wonder if King might not have been better off with one Williams this week and another in a later round. But she's certainly in fine shape for the moment. The Williams Sisters will presumably play singles (though Venus may want to get done quickly; she's scheduled to play Warsaw next week). We're guessing they won't want to play doubles, which leaves the U. S. with an awkward doubles team of Shaughnessy and Alexandra Stevenson. (The other possibility is that Serena might play with Stevenson; they played together last year, and won a title -- Serena's only doubles title without Venus, and Stevenson's only doubles title with anyone. It's too bad King didn't choose Martina Navratilova for doubles; she's ranked high enough now.) But it's really not very important; the U. S. should win based solely on singles against a team of Daja Bedanova, Klara Koukalova, Iveta Benesova, and Eva Birnerova. If it were us, we'd play Bedanova and Benesova in singles. Certainly Bedanova will play first singles, since she's the best the Czechs have even though she's in a slump; Benesova and Koukalova are ranked close together, and Koukalova prefers clay whereas Benesova's best results have been indoors. But we'd expect the U. S. to win by 4-1 or 5-0.
The Russian team that will play against Croatia is not so clear, because the Russians come in with three singles players ranked very close together: Anastasia Myskina, Elena Dementieva, and Elena Bovina are all between #10 and #16. And all are reasonably comfortable on carpet, the surface for this tie. Dementieva just won her first title, but she's also the best doubles player of the bunch. Since Myskina is the weakest doubles player, we'd play her in singles, Dementieva and Bovina in doubles, and perhaps have Dementieva and Bovina each play one singles match. Tatiana Panova is a capable fourth. And Croatia probably can't put up much resistance. Iva Majoli had decent indoor results, way back when, but these days she can hardly win a match. And the rest of the team -- Karolina Sprem, Darija Jurak, and Matea Mezak -- have a combined WTA record over that past three years of 0-1 (Sprem lost first round at Bol 2002). Don't expect this tie to yield too many highlight film moments.
Last year, Austria stunned the United States, helped a little by Jennifer Capriati and a lot more by their secret weapon, Barbara Schwartz. Unfortunately, against Belgium, neither will be on their side; Schwartz, the Aaron Krickstein of women's tennis, is hurt again. They do have Barbara Schett back on their team, but Schett isn't the player she was even a year ago. The fact that they're playing on clay (a strange decision by the Belgians) will help a little, since it makes Patricia Wartusch at least a slight threat -- but with Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne leading the Belgian team, it is unlikely to matter. The only real question about this one is who will play doubles for Belgium. Els Callens, of course, but do they wear out Kim Clijsters to play with her, or go with Caroline Maes? It isn't likely to change the result, though.
The tie between Spain and Australia shows how significant surfaces can be. On grass, it would be an absolutely fascinating tie. Indoors, Australia would be favored, and possibly also on hardcourts, though by a lesser margin. But the Spaniards, naturally, have chosen clay. Alicia Molik has posted some pretty nice clay results recently, with two straight finals, but it's not her best surface, and Nicole Pratt likes it even less, and even doubles specialist Rennae Stubbs has done better on faster courts. Whereas the Spaniards will be playing Conchita Martinez and Virginia Ruano Pascual and Magui Serna. (This is why grass would make it interesting: It's a great surface for the Australians, but all three of the top Spaniards have arguably posted their best results on grass: Martinez won Wimbledon, and Serna made the Eastbourne final, and Ruano Pascual has beaten both Martina Hingis and Serena Williams at Wimbledon.) It's hard to guess who will actually play for Spain -- Martinez, of course, in singles, and Ruano Pascual (the world's #2 doubles player) in doubles. Probably Serna (who is on a 10 match winning streak) in singles, and perhaps whoever is least tired for the other doubles match. However it lines up, though, the Spanish will have a big edge.
The France versus Columbia tie probably wouldn't be interesting on any surface -- but the French were rather nice to their opponents and chose to play on indoor clay. That at least gives the Columbians, with a team headlined by Fabiola Zuluaga and Catalina Castano, a faint chance to make things interesting. Amelie Mauresmo should of course win both her matches for France, but Nathalie Dechy might be a little more vulnerable. And France, interestingly, is a bit weak in doubles; the team that, a few years ago, would have featured Julie Halard-Decugis (who retired as the world #1 in doubles) and Nathalie Tauziat, rounds out its team with Emilie Loit and Virginie Razzano. We'll probably see Dechy/Loit in doubles, but it's not as strong a team as they might have had. Still, France looks quite solid.
Clay also featured in the tie between Germany and the Slovak Republic, with the Germans choosing to play on outdoor clay. That may well be a very chilly contest -- but it will likely be interesting also. The Slovaks are in pretty dreadful shape right now. Their #1 singles player, Daniela Hantuchova, is much the highest-ranked player in the tie, but her singles game is a mess, and she hasn't done anything in doubles this year. Their #1 doubles player and #2 singles player of last year, Janette Husarova, isn't here. That leaves slumping Henrieta Nagyova to play #2 singles, with Lubomira Kurhajcova and Eva Fislova rounding out the team. On paper, the Slovaks are much stronger. But clay equalizes things a bit, and the Germans have two solid upset artists in Marlene Weingartner and Barbara Rittner. And both of them like clay. The interesting choice for the Germans is who to play in singles: Anca Barna is their top singles player, but less of an upset artist. If it were us, we'd go with Barna and Weingartner in singles, play Rittner in doubles with someone -- and hope Hantuchova stumbles. Given that she's stumbled a lot lately, this one could well be close.
The Sweden vs. Italy tie is taking place on an indoor hardcourt, and it's another one that features two messed-up teams. Sweden is playing without Asa Svensson, far and away their best player in both singles and doubles (though she would surely have chosen to play on clay). But the Italians look like they're on strike again. Their best singles player, Silvia Farina Elia, is hurt. Francesca Schiavone isn't here either. Their #3 singles player, Rita Grande, is off. So is Tathiana Garbin, one of their better doubles players. That leaves Flavia Pennetta and Antonella Serra Zanetti as their singles players, and Roberta Vinci and somebody in doubles. But against a Swedish team of Sofia Arvidsson and Maria Wolfbrandt, it probably won't matter.