While our eyes were averted by the latest showdown between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the Fed Cup had a great weekend in outposts as far flung as Kharkiv, Ukraine and Tokyo, Japan. Those names alone ought to add to our appreciation of this star-crossed and often maligned competition, because it demonstrates the evangelical function of Fed Cup.
The indifference of so many fans to Fed Cup (and, to a lesser extent, Davis Cup) still baffles me. The WTA is the gold standard among professional sports for women—nothing else even comes close. And Fed Cup is the premier (and only significant) international team competition on the tennis calendar. Little by little, this may be sinking in, as the number of top women pros who support and believe in Fed Cup grows.
This past weekend's ties produced a final that will be closely watched and promises to be absorbing theater: the Czech Republic, led by world No. 3 Petra Kvitova, will host Serbia in the final.
The Serbian women, in stark contrast to the men, have had trouble figuring out this whole Fed Cup thing. Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic have always been a potentially formidable one-two punch, but until now they've turned in nothing more compelling than a fair imitation of Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, the Belgian stars who accounted for one measly title between them—and that in 2001, way back when Fed Cup consisted of just three matches, two singles and a doubles.
That remains, at least statistsically, one of the best Fed Cup performances ever. Henin blasted Nadia Petrova, 6-0, 6-3, then Clijsters hammered Elena Dementieva, 6-0, 6-4. The doubles (won by the Russians) was irrelevant.
It's astonishing, given the value Serbs place on patriotism, that Jankovic and Ivanovic hadn't been on a team that won a single World Group tie until the first one of this year. And it isn't even like their records, taken individually, are all that bad. Ivanovic is 15-7 in Fed Cup; she's 12-5 in singles with wins over Caroline Wozniacki, Radwanska (okay, it was the wrong one, Urszula. But still. . .), Monica Niculescu, Anabel Medina Garrigues, and Daniela Hantuchova.
Jankovic is the workhorse in this outfit. She's 34-12—27-7 in singles—but her record is littered with obscure opponents. Her high point, before this weekend, was a pair of singles wins in a losing effort against the Russians in the 2010 quarterfinals. She took down Svetlana Kuznetsova and Alisa Kleybanova on that occasion, foreshadowing her wins this weekend over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Kuznetsova. This time, though, Ivanovic contributed a much-needed singles win in the third, swing rubber of the tie, toppling Pavlyuchenkova, 3-6, 6-0, 6-3.
Now, the Serbs will be up against a young, confident and very into-it team of Czechs. Kvitova may be mired on a singles slump on the tour, but when Fed Cup calls, she's still a demon. She won the second and third singles against Italy without losing a set—bang, bang—to secure the Czech Republic's place in the final. Lucie Safarova, world No. 23 and a lefty like Kvitova, nicely fits the role of supporting cast, and will make the Serbs feel they must beat her twice.
The U.S. won over the weekend as well, in the World Group playoff round (the B-roll of the competition). And if Serena Williams, age 30, can't be counted in the team's future once the Olympic Games end this summer, Christina McHale is young and has the patriot gene—much like her Davis Cup counterpart, John Isner. That's a great omen for the USA.
And did you see that Andrea Petkovic of Germany told reporters that her squad, swept in Stuttgart in another World Group playoff by Australia, probably "wanted it too much"? Australia had world No. 4 Sam Stosur, but Germany had the home field advantage (indoor red clay), the crowd, and three players ranked in the Top 25: Petkovic (No. 11), Angelique Kerber (No. 14) and Julie Goerges (No. 16). Australia's second singles player, Jarmila Gajdosova, is a lowly No. 50. But she got the job done in the second rubber with a big win over Goerges.
When Top 10 players start succumbing to pressure and talk about wanting it too much—even in a playoff-round tie—you know Fed Cup is heading in the right direction.