They Said What? Growing Pains

Wednesday, November 06, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

"By changing the (Fed Cup final) date we believe we have shown flexibility and concern for the players in helping them to continue to represent their country in this prestigious competition."—Francesco Ricci Bitti, President of the International Tennis Federation, in a news release announcing that the Fed Cup final will be played a week later in the year.

Ricci Bitti might have added, at the end of that quote, “without sacrificing their earning opportunities in more aggressively commercial events.”

To those of you keeping score, it may seem that this move represents an attempt by the ITF to save face and put a positive spin on the theoretical humiliation it suffered when many top Russian players decided to play in the WTA Tournament of Champions in Sofia, Bulgaria, instead of representing their nation in the Fed Cup final hosted by Italy last week.

You know how that worked out: While Elena Vesnina and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova were busy playing in an event that absolutely nobody will ever remember, Italy crushed Russia’s scrubs to win the title, 4-0.

It was Italy’s fourth Fed Cup in eight years, and when it comes to the lack of Russian star power, the 5,000 fans who packed the Tennis Club Cagliari in Sardinia on each day of the tournament didn’t seem to care. They had come to see Italy improve its wonderful record and developing tradition as a tennis power. They were not disappointed,

“Maybe the final was very strange because we did not play against the best players from Russia but . . . we had to concentrate and we were scared a little bit,” said Italian captain Corrado Barazzutti when it was over. “Maybe it was one of the more easy Fed Cups that we won, but I want to remember that we beat the best team in the world [Czech Republic] in the semifinal. The important thing is to win when you have a chance to win.”

Good for Barazzutti and the Italian women who valued Fed Cup above the quasi-exhibition in Sofia. As Barazzutti said, “I think the players have the right spirit. The girls like to play for their country, they like each other, they are friends who support each other and that is the secret I think to win in Fed Cup.”

Isn’t that a nice “secret” to promote and keep alive? I mean, what comparable distinction can the Garanti Koza WTA Tournament of Champions (Sofia) claim? That Simona Halep salted away some $270,000 for winning?

I’m not going to blame the athletes for following the money, but isn’t it ironic that the WTA threw its weight behind this event instead of working with the ITF to build Fed Cup into the premier annual international women’s athletic competition? Think about it: Women’s World Cup soccer is nowhere near the men’s version when it comes to status and popularity. That means the high ground for prestige in international women’s sports can be occupied by Fed Cup. It can be done, provided Fed Cup attracts broad participation by the top players. Forget ITF, WTA, ATP, NCAA, etc.—this would be a great triumph for the brand we’ll just call Women’s Tennis.

The ITF appears to recognize the opportunity here, despite the difficulties it has always faced trying to get people as juiced about Fed Cup as they are about Davis Cup (and outside the U.S., they’re plenty enthusiastic). It is also aware of the hazards, which is why it has so compliantly acquiesced to the WTA and pushed back the Fed Cup final.

That’s a good move. Next year, there’s a week between the ATP Paris Masters and the World Tour Finals. That’s the week Fed Cup is moving into, which means it will no longer conflict with the Tournament of Champions or the WTA Championships—or go up against the men. This way, it seems that everyone wins—and that doesn’t always happen on tennis’s political battlefields.

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