14 Jul 2006 - Ariake Colussium, Tokyo, Japan - Barry Wood
Japan wary against young Austrian team
The importance of the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas to the Japanese was underlined when the draw was attended by Prince Akishino, younger brother of the Crown Prince, in Tokyo on Friday.
“It’s so special,” said Japanese number one
Ai Sugiyama. “Also when we had the draw in April he appeared, and we are very happy to share time with him.”
The draw is as follows:
Akiko Morigami (JPN) v Barbara Schwartz (AUT)
Ai Sugiyama (JPN) v Melanie Klaffner (AUT)
Ai Sugiyama (JPN) v Barbara Schwartz (AUT)
Akiko Morigami (JPN) v Melanie Klaffner (AUT)
Shinobu Asagaoe/Ai Sugiyama (JPN) v Nikola Hofmanova/Melanie Klaffner (AUT)
On paper, Japan should have little difficulty in qualifying for the 2007 World Group. The experience and rankings tell the story. The host nation is led by Sugiyama, ranked 19 in singles. Akiko Morigami plays as the number two, and she is ranked 48 in singles. The doubles team consists of ninth-ranked Sugiyama and 15th-ranked Shinobu Asagoe, and they are backed up by Aiko Nakamura, ranked 71 in singles.
Austria without key players
In contrast, Austria play without their only truly world-class player, 44th-ranked Sybille Bammer, who is injured. Instead, their number one player is 666th-ranked Barbara Schwartz, supported by 786th-ranked Melanie Klaffner. Klaffner will play doubles with unranked Nikola Hofmanova.
However, things might not be as grim as they look for Austria. Schwartz’s ranking is low because she missed 15 months with an achilles injury, and since then she has managed so far to play just seven matches in 2005 and earn only 4 ITF wins in 2006. She can, though, draw on her Fed Cup experience of playing a major part in Austria’s 2002 advance to the semifinals, with wins over Monica Seles and Meghann Shaughnessy in their first round victory over the United States. And Hofmanova recently played well in the Wimbledon junior event, reaching the third round.
“It’s going to be difficult,” admitted Austrian team captain Alfred Tesar. “It is good for us that Barbara Schwartz is to play the first match because she has a lot of experience. It is the first appearance in the Fed Cup for the young players, but we have to rebuild our team. But the juniors are very good, and one girl (Hofmanova) was in the last 16 at Wimbledon.”
Sugiyama: 'Nothing can be taken for granted'
Sugiyama is also insistent that nothing can be taken for granted.
“Not at all. There is no easy match right now,” she said. “Even though ranking-wise it’s a big difference, with team play in the Fed Cup it’s a little different, the atmosphere and everything, and you never know until the end. So we’ll just focus on what we have to do and that’s the most important thing for us.”
She had a couple of recent reminders that no opponent can be underestimated.
“To play someone you don’t know is not easy, especially for me. I learned a lot about that at the French Open when I played a qualifier (Aravane Rezai), but she was really tough mentally and played great tennis and I lost, unfortunately. And also in the fourth round in Wimbledon again it was a qualifier (Severine Bremond). So it’s never easy and we take nothing for granted.”
Japanese team spirit is strong
There is more than higher rankings and experience that tip the scales in Japan’s favour, however. It was obvious at the welcome dinner, which the team attended in traditional Japanese dress, that the players and their coach, Minoru Ueda, share a close relationship. That is surely an asset in such a competition.
“It’s so nice,” said Sugiyama. “The captain and all the players are very good friends and get along really well.”