The Tennis Space briefing: Five Things about The Fed Cup.
Barely have the tennis world’s female participants recovered from the 24-hour flight from Australia than they’ve boarded planes to all sorts of pit stops for Queen and country. Or just country, in most cases. This week is dedicated to the Fed Cup, the female equivalent of Dwight Davis’s revolutionary idea…to make tennis players compete as a team, for their country, for some silverware.
The ever-approaching Olympics has made Fed Cup rather more interesting this year, forcing a few famous faces to don their country’s tracksuits (some lurid, some not), in order to be eligible for qualification for London 2012.
So…here are five things to take note of as the zonal ties take place this week, and the World Group and World Group II ties kick off this weekend.
Fed Cup, like its brother, is divided into various groups and zones. Top of the pops is the World Group, comprised of eight nations, who have the chance to play three times in a year. The first round, is first, obviously, then the semi-finals, and then final.
Below the World Group are the eight teams of World Group II, which is exactly the same, except it’s the teams who’ve either been relegated from the World Group, or promoted from the various zones. They play their ties at the same time as the first round, and then play-offs for promotion and relegation in September, traditionally.
Beneath those two, are the zones, which are divided by level, and then by continent, or zone. So Group I, II, and III all have a Europe/Africa group, and Asia/Oceania group, and an Americas group. In the zonal ties, teams play just two singles and a doubles each day against other teams within their group, and then have the chance to play-off to reach the promotion or relegation play-offs in September.
So…this week’s ties are as follows:
Russia v Spain
Belgium v Serbia
Italy v Ukraine
Germany v Czech Republic
World Group II
USA v Belarus
Japan v Slovenia
Slovak Rep. v France
Switzerland v Australia
And…for those with British leanings, Team GB are playing in Europe/Africa Zone Group I.
One of the things that makes Fed Cup fascinating, aside from the teams, are the locations it ends up in. Fribourg? Biella? Eilat? Chaleroi? Curitibia? Not exactly the usual hubs on the tennis calendar.
But when a Fed Cup tie is allocated, a venue is found, a court is created, fans are whipped up, and lo and behold, you have yourselves a tennis tournament.
How else would you expect Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams to end up coming face to face in the glorious surrounds of Worcester, Massachusetts, a place Azarenka, newly-crowned Australian Open champion, confessed she had no idea how to spell.
Team GB, too, are in an interesting spot. Eilat, in Israel, which also hosted the same group last year. A seaside town better known for being a holiday resort than anything else, the team’s hotel is next to a giant rock. And that’s about all there is.
The line calls can be a little interesting, the lighting often dubious when indoors, the local food and customs. It’s always different.
Tennis is an individual sport. So throwing a bunch of people together and telling them to play as a team can have its tricky times, especially when said bunch of people are girls, housed under the roof of a competitive environment, mixed in with a heap of stress, then the fur can sometimes fly.
But that said, every player that plays Fed Cup enjoys it precisely because it is different, you’re not on your own, for once, and although every match is important, you have other people supporting you and to support, even if that does involve a lot of questionable chanting.
There are fun parts too. One of Fed Cup’s most time-honoured traditions is the rookie speech, whereby each newcomer is invited (or forced) to say a few words at the pre-tie official dinner. Some tell jokes, some read poems, and some, if you’re Laura Robson, rap. “I like big butts and I cannot lie,” that timeless classic, was her song of choice.
The official dinners themselves are a wonder. Local bands, local food, local customs. It’s rare to hear of a dull one.
You also, and again, this can be unusual for players used to relying on their coach for decisions, have a team captain sitting on your bench, who picks the teams, provides advice during matches, takes care of training, evening activities, and so on. The captain also needs looking after too…in Judy Murray’s case, a steady supply of chocolate treats to calm the mid-match nerves.
Most importantly, let’s not forget, Fed Cup is about great matches.
Straightforward wins you’d expect happen, like Belarus white-washing Estonia 5-0 in last year’s promotion play-off, but there are also the big upsets, the ‘how on earth did that happen’ results.
Little-known Italy, for example, beat Belgium when Justine Henin was in her pomp in 2006. The Slovak Republic beat Spain to win the title in 2002. Anne Keothavong, nearly, very nearly, upset top 10-er Agnieszka Radwanska in Tallinn three years ago. South Africa, would you believe it, beat Virginia Wade and co to win the title in 1972.
You get great battles, too. Just look at Elena Baltacha’s scorcher over Michelle Larcher de Brito in Israel on Wednesday. De Brito is famous for her shrieking and fist-pumping, and made an ill-fated attempt to intimidate the British number one. She soon found herself on the wrong end of the result, and some of Baltacha’s fist pumps instead.
And part of the reason for those fights is the players. Venus Williams has a 17-4 win loss record for the USA, Francesca Schiavone and co have won the Fed Cup for Italy, Petra Kvitova secured the Fed Cup title for the Czech Republic last November, Steffi Graf was a lynchpin for Germany, Martina Navratilova for Czechoslovakia, and so on.
The home fans at Davis Cup ties always add an extra element to each match, capable of utterly disrupting a result, and Fed Cup is just the same. I remember watching Kaia Kanepi, urged on by a barnful of Estonians, beating none other than Azarenka, to put Estonia, that mighty tennis nation, forwards to play for promotion to World Group II.
The Dutch fans, who are with the British team in Israel, are legendary for their array of hats, all orange, of course, while the Portuguese went nuts for their team in Lisbon two years ago, even though they lost almost every match they played.
The Israelis are doing their bit this year, too. A local article summing up Wednesday’s results described Judy Murray as ‘the Queen Mother.’
And the Brits, of course, have some of their most loyal supporters in attendance, the British Association of Tennis Supporters, fondly known as the BATS. Salutes to them.
So that’s a taster for you. Follow all the results this week on fedcup.com. It won’t disappoint.