September 13, 2008

The Fallacy of Fed Cup

I'm not sure I ever understood the point of the Fed Cup.

The theory is good, creating a team spirit in a sport which is almost entirely an individual effort. Outside of doubles, these athletes never have someone else on the court to encourage them when they're down or help pick up their slack if they're having a bad day. In team tennis, however -- whether it holds Fed Cup implications or if the combatants are simply playing for their high school or college -- one point, one game, one match won't determine who walks away with the trophy.

But in that case does the winner really reflect the landscape of tennis?

Take for example the 2008 Fed Cup final being played in Madrid this weekend. The Russian team is defending their title against the women of Spain, who haven't won the honor in ten years when my all-time favorite female player, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, was leading the team.

Last year the champion Russians won all four matches against Italy. But this year they're missing Olympic champion Elena Dementieva and U.S. Open Series winner Dinara Safina. Maria Sharapova is out with a nagging shoulder injury and Anna Chakvetadze isn't playing in the final matches either. They have six players ranked in the top fifteen in the world but only two are on their Fed Cup team: #7 Svetlana Kuznetzova and Vera Zvonareva, #9.

But despite their holes, the Russians still have a more intimidating lineup than the Spanish where the highest ranked player, Anabel Medina Garrigues, is only #29 in singles and won't even have the advantage of playing with her usual doubles partner, Virginia Ruano Pascual, with whom she can really do some harm.

One of these two teams will be named the best.

Sure, it's been a good year for Spanish athletes. The national soccer team won their first trophy in 45 years at the European Championship, Carlos Sastre claimed the Tour de France's top spot, and the country took eighteen medals at the Beijing Olympics, five gold. Not to mention, of course, Rafael Nadal's ending Roger Federer's four-and-a-half year run as the top player in the world last month.

But, truth be told, I'm almost surprised the Spanish women made it to the finals at all. In the first round Spain faced Italy, winning by a narrow 3-2 margin. Against China they had a better result, losing only one match to Jie Zheng, the unexpected Wimbledon semifinalist.

Russia on the other hand has had more success on the court this year, but of the women playing in the finals, only Zvonareva has won a tournament this year -- the ECM in Prague.

Who should be in the finals?

Well as much as I hate to say it, the Williams have had a great year, winning one Grand Slam each, and Serena even regained her #1 world ranking. On the doubles side Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond both played in the finals at the U.S. Open -- admittedly against each other, but regardless, they've proven their continued worth.

And what about the Serbs? Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic are ranked #2 and #3 respectively. Jelena gave the younger Williams a run for her money in New York and Ana played in two finals this year, even winning in Paris.

Instead we have a relatively unknown Spain and a slightly debilitated Russia. Both of which are of course talented in their own right -- I don't mean to discount their ability. But I'm not sure either represents the best in women's tennis -- at least not this year or in their current form.

By Saturday afternoon Russia was already up, two to zero -- both Svetlana and Vera had won their singles matches -- and Spain faced a gargantuan deficit from which they hope to come back on Sunday. I'm sure the underdogs are eager to prove their place in the finals, and I'm hoping for a few well-fought matches on the last day of battle.

And to the eventual winner, of course, congratulations!

Thanks for reading again -- and, as always, serve well and play hard!

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