Anyone but Burkina Faso!

Sunday, April 17, 2011 /by

Vera

by Pete Bodo

Boy, it sure gets lonely here in the virtual sportsbar that chose to present Fed Cup rather than the Monte Carlo semis and final. . . the operative word being "virtual," because in no reality-based scenario would a bartender even think of having all those giant flat-screen TVs that stretch everyone like Gumby tuned to the nominal ITF channel when Rafael Nadal is driving toward that enchanted seventh straight Monte Carlo final.

Or would he (or she)?

Did you balk at my use of the adjective "enchanted"? It proves you're a sentient being if you did, because as great an achievement as it would be to win the same Masters tournament seven times running (Sorry, Balazs, but Hilversum just doesn't have the same ring as Monte Carlo; some of you may remember that B. Taroczy won six of his 13 ATP singles titles at Hilversum), at some level seven is just a number—and a meaningless one—should Nadal win Monte Carlo, oh, 13 times. The point I'm trying to make is that this seventh title Nadal seeks is just part of a continuum not likely to end soon. Wake me up when the boy bags his 11th, or 14th.

By contrast, how often does the U.S. fall out of the World Group in Fed Cup play? Hah! Never. There's none of this six of 13, or seven in a row, or 16 majors about that fact. As of this morning, the U.S. moves into the land of relegation, where it will have to battle the likes of Franco-Dutch Antibes, Andorra, Malta, Iceland, Kiribati, Great Britian and other minor tennis powers in order to get back into the big show it once dominated as the most successful tennis power to date.

Now that's news.

Before today's play began in Germany, U.S. captain Mary Jo Fernandez tried to put the best face on the 0-2 U.S. deficit: "Russia was able to do it against France [earlier this year], so coming back from 0-2 has been done before. Melanie (Oudin) will start us off [against Petkovic] and try to get us on the board."

Only problem: the U.S. doesn't have a Vera Zvonareva (world No. 2) or even a Svetlana Kuznetsova (world No. 13, 4, 678, 55 or 124, or looking like it, depending on what day it is).

Well, the U.S. is already out as I write this. Oudin failed to get even a set against dancin' fool Andrea Petkovic in Stuttgart, and I imagine that even the most diehard German tennis fans in attendance today are scratching their heads and asking themselves: I paid 50 Deutschemarks for this? Note: I did not fact check the actual ticket prices; put any number you want in there and the reaction still holds, because the U.S. is leaving Germay without having won a single set. Let's hope we get a good draw for the WG II first-round next year and please, oh please, let us not draw Burkina Faso!

So what are we left with today? The Monte Carlo final? (Were it not for Nike's cash-flow needs, Tennis Channel could just well pop in a tape of last year's, or the 2006, or 2009 final.) That's likely to be another gruesome execution; thank Godot that clay absorbs blood so easily, and due to its color shows not a trace. How about this for a show: Dead rubbers, live from Stuggart! Not for me, proud as I am to be an American, to the chagrin of so many of my ultra-enlightened readers. How about Russia's clean-up operation against Italy? Ixnay. I'm looking at the WG II Slovak Republic vs. Serbia battle, and that's not some primitive ethnic joke.

This is the beauty of Fed Cup and Davis Cup weeks. There's almost always something going on, even if it's not exactly high profile.

Unlike many of the other events in progress this weekend, the Serbs vs. the Slovaks is actually competitive, and it also featured some interesting tactical maneuvering by Serbia captain Dejan Vranes. He nominated and played Bojana Jovanovski, a rapidly rising 19-year old, despite the venue (indoors, in Bratislava) and the luxury he enjoys in having two former No. 1 players, both of them still young and eager, at his disposal.

Mel Vranes nominated No. 17 Ana Ivanovic to play first singles, and Jovanovski (a mere No. 28, compared to No. 8 Jankovic) to play in the second slot (the order determined by the rankings; the higher-ranked of the two singles players must play in the top slot). The draw sent Jovanovski out to play the top Slovak, No. 28 Dominika Cibulkova, in the opening rubber. Vranes' bold vote of confidence—and mind game?—backfired as Cibulkova routed Jovanovski in the third set, 6-1.

Ivanovic did come through in the second match, giving Daniela Hantuchova just six games in the second match. But already today, Cibulkova knocked off Ivanovic, leaving Vranes to (predictaby) substitute Jankovic for Jovanovski.

This at least made clear the Serb captain's thinking: because the higher-ranked singles player is automatically the "No. 1" on a squad, leaving Jankovic out of the mix on Day 1 left Vranes with his best player in reserve to clinch the tie, or keep Serbia's hopes alive. Or I guess that's what he was thinking, although my own feeling is that he outfoxed himself. Jankovic and Ivanovic could have put the Serbs up 2-0 before the Slovaks knew what hit them. Why not take your best shot when you have the guns?

We'll see if the Serbs will be made to pay for this strategy. Meanwhile, in the World Group semis, Russia has clinched its tie against Italy (Zvonareva lost all of eight games in two matches) and the Czech Republic's chances against Belgium look good, although it could become a cliffhanger. In the WG playoffs,  I just checked the France vs. Spain tie and that one's getting complicated, too, with substitutions. It's been a long time since France has been out of the World Group.

I can see it already: U.S. vs. France in the first round of World Group II for 2012. Can Burkina Faso be far behind?

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