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Fed Cup: Time For a(nother) Change?

Bob Larson

It wouldn't be Fed Cup if they didn't change the format every year.

They'll be at it again next year, reducing the number of teams in the final round. It will be the fifth change in five years.

Certainly this year's format wasn't a success (unless you were Belgian, anyway). Turnout for many of the matches was low, and the players weren't very happy. Justine Henin was the most vocal, complaining about the conditions on the second court, but few if any were actually comfortable.

And therein lies the problem -- the true weakness: The players don't want to be here.

And why don't they want to be here? In two words: No points.

The top players don't need money. They don't need fame. They need rest. An event that makes them play without granting ranking points is a pure drain on their energies.

So why not award points for Fed Cup?

The problem is, Fed Cup isn't a tournament in an ordinary sense. Technically, it isn't a WTA event; it's an ITF event. But that could be worked out. The real problem is in the way Fed Cup is designed. For one thing, the field isn't chosen based on the WTA rankings. It's not even close. An American Fed Cup team might well consist of all Top Ten players, whereas this year's Australian team couldn't field a single Top Fifty player. In the ordinary course of things, the Australians and Americans can't even play in the same tournaments.

Then, too, Fed Cup isn't a single-elimination event. The Australians, at Fed Cup this year, had the dubious pleasure of going out there and losing. And losing again. And losing again. The Czech Republic was almost as helpless. Should you award points for wins over a player who clearly shouldn't be there?

Is there a cure for this? Well, since we're just sitting here dreaming, at least one idea suggests itself: Make Fed Cup a real tournament. No more three rounds-spread-across-the-year. No more multiple elimination. Get everyone together and have them play. Score it as an individual event: Put, say, two players from each country in the singles draw, and one team in the doubles, and whichever team gets the most combined wins from its players wins Fed Cup. Seed like any other tournament, except that players from two same nation can't be in the same half of the draw. (If we include more than three singles players, we keep them out of the same quarter.)

There are many variations on that, depending on how many teams and players you want to include. If we accepted this year's concept of eight teams, two singles players per team and one doubles player, and if we re-insert the likely U. S. players, then our teams would be something like this (note that these are not the teams that actually played; we're assuming everyone is healthy and that those who usually play are willing to play in this altered format):

Argentina: Singles: Suarez, Salerni, Doubles: Suarez/Montalvo

Australia: Molik, McQuillan, McQuillan/Pratt

Belgium: Clijsters, Henin, Callens/Courtois

Czech Republic: Bedanova, Chladkova, Hrdlickova/Vaskova

France: Mauresmo, Testud, Tauziat/Razzano

Russia: Dementieva, Likhovtseva, Likhovtseva/Petrova

Spain: Sanchez-Vicario, Martinez, Ruano Pascual/Sanchez-Vicario

United States: Davenport, Seles, Davenport/Raymond

In this case, our singles seeds are: <br />1. Davenport <br />2. Clijsters <br />3. Henin <br />4. Mauresmo <br />5. Seles <br />6. Testud <br />7. Dementieva <br />8. Sanchez-Vicario

So we get a singles draw similar to this:

<br />1 Davenport<br /> Molik<br /> Bedanova<br />6 Testud<br /> <br />7 Dementieva<br /> Martinez<br /> Suarez<br />3 Henin<br /> <br />4 Mauresmo<br /> Likhovtseva<br /> Salerni<br />8 Sanchez-Vicario<br />5 Seles<br /> Chladkova<br /> McQuillan<br />2 Clijsters

Our doubles seeds are: <br />1. Ruano Pascual/Sanchez-Vicario, <br />2. Davenport/Raymond, <br />3. Likhovtseva/Petrova,<br /> 4. Montalvo/Suarez.

How would this turn out? If we just assume that all seeds hold (i.e. Davenport wins, beating Clijsters in the final, Henin in the semifinal, etc.), we would find the following

Standings:<br />U. S. -- 7 wins: Davenport-4, Seles-1, doubles-2

Belgium -- 5: Clijsters-3, Henin-2, doubles-0

Spain -- 4: Sanchez-Vicario-1, Martinez-0, doubles-3

France -- 3: Mauresmo-2, Testud-1, doubles-0

Russia -- 2: Dementieva-1, Likhovtseva-0, doubles-1

Argentina -- 1: Suarez-0, Salerni-0, doubles-1

Australia -- 0

Czech Republic -- 0

The team with the winning singles player is clearly at a big advantage, but you can't win with the #1 singles alone. And what you have is a tournament to which the WTA ranking rules can actually apply (though it might be wise to give extra quality points and keep the round points low).

This isn't the only way we could arrange the draw, although eight teams is probably the minimum. This is a 16-draw. Other reasonable draw sizes: 24 (eight teams, three players per team, eight seeds, or perhaps the top player from each country, gets a first-round bye), 32 (either sixteen teams, two players per team, or eight teams, four players per team), 48.(16 teams, three players each, sixteen byes), 64.(16 teams, four players each or 32 teams, two players each), or even 96.(32 teams, 3 players each) or 128.(64 teams, 2 players each or 32 teams, 4 players each).

The rules for assigning ranking points in such a case are quite well-established: If the winner gets X points, the finalist gets 70% of that total, the semifinalists 45%, the quarterfinalists 25%, etc. Having an event where players get to participate based on nationality is a long way from perfect (as the Olympics showed), but at least the results are coherent -- and it gives players a reason to turn out for Fed Cup.
 

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At least award points. Ditto for the Olympics.

I'm starting to think the best Fed Cup format was the original one, with 3 matches (2 singles and a doubles) per tie in one week, alternating cities. Cities or countries with good attendence(like Vancouver in 1987, where they got about 70,000) get to host again within 4 years.
 

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Larson's idea would make it too much like a regular tournament, though. I think - I have no idea how feasible this is, probably not at all - that the Fed Cup and Davis Cup should join together. Maybe not for one trophy, but they should be played at the same time and in the same place, rather like the World Cup in football (properly like the World Cup, anyway, not like the nonsense Fed Cup system this year). There'd be more attendance because of the fact that both men and women are present. For nations which keep losing and losing, there should be playoffs against other nations which keep losing and losing.
 
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