Peter Bodo: Fed Cup

Team competition has its faults

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
The Davis Cup and Fed Cup were played on back-to-back weekends, and once again the results -- and reviews -- for the most credible and storied of annual international team sports competitions were mixed.

There was some controversy as well, coming out of the Davis Cup World Group play. Team Germany, after having swept Spain in Frankfurt, declared that since the tie was decided, the meaningless match (or “dead rubber” in Davis Cup patois) between Germany’s No. 1 Philipp Kohlschreiber and Nadal-less Spain’s top player, Feliciano Lopez, would not take place.

Thus, the only match that the faithful in Frankfurt were offered on that Sunday that began with Germany already having won 3-0 was the fifth match, another meaningless “dead rubber” in which Germany’s Daniel Brands salted away Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut in two desultory sets.

The sweep is always a problem in Davis Cup, because it renders the third day of the tie is meaningless. That’s a tough pill to swallow for some potential or actual ticket-buyers, but judging from the reaction in Germany it’s not as tough as being told that no matter how happy you are to see your boys sweep, you’re not going to see what you paid to see.

That didn’t sit well with the German fans. They booed and protested the announcement that the fourth rubber was canceled, and a terrific moment for the German team was ruined by the ugly mood that descended on the venue in what ought to have been a moment of shared pride and joy.

This is a persistent problem in Davis Cup, because the sweep isn’t uncommon. Three of the eight ties in the first-round of World Group play ended in sweeps. This challenge is particularly acute because of a different, otherwise terrific Davis Cup rule that mandates that the No. 1 players meet in the fourth rubber, which is the first match on Sunday. It’s generally the most anticipated match of any tie, and canceling it entirely just puts salt on the wound.

The ITF ought to come up with a way to keep ticket-buying fans entertained and happy in the event of a sweep. It can demand that the Davis Cup nations make provisions for giving the fans some kind of legitimate show instead of telling them to just go home on the final day of play. Perhaps No. 1 singles players ought to be obliged to play a doubles match of some kind. The options are numerous. The important thing is that some fans travel from afar to make a three-day weekend out of Davis Cup, so why force them to endure a preventable “rainout” on Sundays?

The Fed Cup doesn’t have that problem, and in some ways its format is more suitable for this era. Fed Cup is played over the weekend with two singles matches on Saturday and three matches on Sunday, culminating with the doubles. Thus, the tie is “live” both days, even when it’s destined to be a sweep.

I don’t think Davis Cup needs to adopt that two-day format; the middle “doubles” Saturday is a great Davis Cup tradition for good reason -- it enhances the strategic maneuverings of the captains. And given that the men play best-of-five sets, a three-match day would be too much like a death march for all concerned.

The three-day Davis Cup format is brilliant, showcasing doubles and encouraging strategy without overinflating its importance. The competition doesn’t need changing, it just needs a better insurance policy against meaningless Sundays.

How about respect for Fed Cup?

February, 7, 2014
Feb 7
When it comes to the upcoming Fed Cup battles this weekend in the first round of World Group play, that sound you hear isn’t that of fans banging their feet or chanting. It’s those danged crickets chirping.

Why Fed Cup can't get even a modicum of attention and respect is beyond me. I mean, there isn't even anything else going on in the WTA, never mind anything compelling, and the net result isn't the hoped-for focus on Fed Cup. It's radio silence.

The two lead stories on the WTA website as I write this are, on top, "WTA Stars: Fave Winter Olympic Sports" and "Vika and Maria's Brilliant Babooshkas." That second one is about how Azarenka and Sharapova are "still not too cool to hang out with their grandmothers."


Even if you're not a Fed Cup or Davis Cup fan, you probably can see that the U.S.-Italy meeting (at Cleveland; hold the jokes) could provide some really interesting tennis.

That's because on paper the teams look really competitive. The likely U.S. singles players, Madison Keys and Alison Riske, are ranked Nos. 37 and 46, respectively. They're also charged with the unenviable task of trying to prepare American fans for a world without Serena and Venus Williams, who are unlikely to play forever.

The Italians arrived with Karin Knapp and Camila Giorgi, ranked Nos. 40 and 84, respectively. They have their own reality-check cross to bear: Italy needs to get accustomed to a world without Francesca Schiavone, Flavia Pennetta and Roberta Vinci -- three stalwarts who helped Italy win the title four times since 2006.

OK, American fans want to see stars. I get it. But with all the hoo-ha about "girl power" and the march of women's rights, why does Fed Cup seem like one of the very few internationally prominent and marketable events that doesn't get any respect at all? Where are all the feminist voices, demanding that Fed Cup get its just reward for being the oldest and -- by far -- most big-time women's international team competition?

This is a particularly big problem in the U.S., which ironically has been at the cutting edge when it comes to advancing women's sports. Granted, the Davis Cup also suffers from lack of hype here, which is a baffling and perhaps inexplicable thing. But the conspicuous lack of enthusiasm for Fed Cup is astonishing.

Lest you think that the Fed Cup suffers from the lack of star power exemplified by the U.S.-Italy tie, the Slovak Republic vs. Germany tie features four singles player ranked No. 37 or better, including No. 8 Angelique Kerber of Germany and recent Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova.

Maria Sharapova may be swanning around Sochi, leaving Russia’s Fed Cup chances in the hands of women ranked in the netherworld (Russia is led by Victoria Kan, No. 158). But the Australians have the services of their two best players, Grand Slam champion and WTA No. 16 Samantha Stosur and No. 80 Casey Dellacqua.

Russia at Australia is the only tie that looks like it could get really ugly, although Stosur has a history of buckling under the pressure of playing at home, and Dellacqua is far from a star. The point is that the other three ties are likely to be competitive -- and spiced by the usual strategic jockeying thanks to the format.

It will surely be a tough week for Fed Cup, what with the Olympics starting, but the problem is much larger than that. Maybe the ITF should just cancel the Fed Cup, knowing that the outrage the move might trigger in the "equal opportunity" community could give Fed Cup and the WTA players who take part in it just the attention it needs -- and deserves.