Passage to India: Australia's remaining Fed Cup players Samantha Stosur, left, and Bryanne Stewart train at White City yesterday for the qualifying event in India in April.
Photo: Craig Golding
Fed Cup captain John Alexander is confident his team will negotiate its first hurdle on the way to returning to the top-flight world group despite fielding a team that lacks Australia's top-ranked singles and doubles players, Alicia Molik and Rennae Stubbs.
As expected, Molik made herself unavailable for the Asia/Oceania Zone qualifying tournament in India in April because of her heavy workload at the start of the season. Ranked No.10 in the world, the 24-year-old will play a heavy schedule aimed at significantly improving that mark.
Stubbs, ranked No.8 in the world in doubles, withdrew from selection for a squad that includes Samantha Stosur, Nicole Pratt, Evie Dominikovic and Bryanne Stewart in protest at being fined for her late arrival at a tie in Russia last year.
Molik's absence comes with Alexander's blessing. Having forecast that she might reach the No.1 spot by the middle of the year, he said that Molik's quest to establish herself as one of the best players in the world was in the best interests of Australian tennis.
"We love Davis Cup and we love Fed Cup," said Alexander. "But the tie comes at a time when Alicia is going to be taking a break after a tough part of her schedule and, geographically, India is not the perfect place for her to be then."
Molik's manager Peter Smylie said she would play three US tournaments in March and April before returning home for a break during the Fed Cup tie. "After that she has Berlin, Rome, the French Open ... she's just trying to build on what she has done and she doesn't want to be exhausted when she gets to Wimbledon like she was last year," he said.
Should Australia make the second Fed Cup qualification round in July, Molik will be a likely starter. "That tie is straight after Wimbledon and, at this stage, I think maybe winning Wimbledon might be the only thing that could stop her," said Alexander. "She might have to weigh that up. But otherwise I think she will be back."
More controversial is the absence of 33-year-old Stubbs, who was fined an undisclosed amount (believed to be the equivalent of one day's pay) for turning up for the tie against Russia a day late. She has appealed against the fine and is believed to be upset that another player who arrived on the same day was not punished.
Alexander said he had spoken with Stubbs in Sydney last month and was made aware of her grievances. While Alexander said he was confident Stubbs would make herself available again, her absence has made things easier for selectors.
Stosur and Stewart won the doubles at the Sydney International last month, having beaten Stubbs and American Lisa Raymond in the first round.
Punishing schedule: Alicia Molik.
"On her day Rennae is definitely one of the best doubles players in the world," Alexander said. "But Sam and Bryanne are becoming a formidable pair. We would have had the problem of whether you take a champion doubles player and build a team, or take the best team you have."
Eight countries - the others are China, Chinese Taipei, India, Korea, New Zealand, Singapore and Kazakhstan - are attempting to advance to the next round of qualifying in India. The teams will be split into two groups for a round-robin event with the top two teams playing off in the final.
Alexander expects Australia and China to be seeded No.1 in their groups and believes his relatively young team should be favourite to qualify.
"We've got Samantha, who is really very mentally strong, and Nicole Pratt, who was our No.1 player last year, now as the No.2," he said. "The team we will field in India is certainly more than capable."