FRIBOURG, SWITZERLAND: Scorelines, in any sport, can be misleading, but especially in tennis. A case in point is Australia’s Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group II first round tie in Fribourg this past weekend. A 4-1 away win sounds fairly conclusive but the outcome might have been completely different had Switzerland won the fourth singles rubber as they might easily have done.
It was the same, but in reverse, a year ago when Australia lost 4-1 to Italy. The Aussies were so close to knocking out the champions but you would never have gleaned it from the scoreline. Sam Stosur could and perhaps should – and this is the nub of the matter – have won both her singles rubbers, but instead lost in three close sets to both Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta. No disgrace in that, though.
“Look, I think on paper we have a great team, but they don’t always seem to play well at the same time,” said David Taylor, the Australian captain. “We just simply need them all to play to their ability at the one time.”
In some ways Jarmila Gajdosova typifies the Australian team. On her day she can beat anyone – and she can lose to almost anyone. In that tie against the Italians, she managed to beat Schiavone, the French Open champion, in the opening rubber. Also, it may surprise some people to learn that she has beaten her fellow countrywoman and Grand Slam champion Stosur on both occasions they have met and furthermore in straight sets.
In which case, it’s not unreasonable to ask, what was she doing these past few days in Fribourg losing to someone – Stephanie Voegele – ranked No. 124 in the world and, perhaps more alarmingly, also very nearly doing so to someone else – Amra Sadikovic – ranked No. 219. However, her performance against the latter might prove to be not quite so worrying because the tall, leggy Sadikovic looks like a player who is going places.
Consistency. It’s the ingredient most sportsmen and women are constantly searching for. Certainly Australia have good strength in depth in their team with players like Jelena Dokic and Casey Dellacqua, who would be first choice in many teams, proving excellent back-up.
On a positive note, Stosur, the Australian No. 1, won both her matches against Switzerland in straight sets without playing at her best. She was closer to it in her second singles rubber against Voegele when, according to Taylor, she “looked like the fifth best player in the world”, adding “she was a great team leader for us”. But Taylor will need her playing up to the form she showed just five months ago when she won the US Open if Australia’s challenge this year is to be taken seriously.
Stosur is obviously a key player for Australia not just because she is an outstanding player, but more specifically because she is an outstanding player on any surface. In terms of the surface laid at the Fribourg Forum the Swiss women were governed to a large extent by what the Swiss men wanted for their Davis Cup tie against USA this week.
There would have been no time to pull up the surface lay another for the men, but Christiane Jolissaint, the Swiss captain, was more than happy to go with a fast clay court, which played right into the hands of Stosur, the runner-up at last year’s Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome and, of course, the 2010 French Open.
It goes without saying that the Aussies are due a good run in Fed Cup, having not even made a Final in 19 years. And they haven’t won it since the halcyon days of Evonne Goolagong in the Seventies. If they can win their World Group play-off tie in April, then with an obliging draw they could do something next year. Because of Stosur’s versatility, and to a slightly lesser extent Gajdosova’s, they are dangerous opponents for anyone.
If nothing else, their chances of success would appear to be greater than that of their male counterparts, whose star is also rising again thanks to the emergence of Bernard Tomic, which might help extend the Davis Cup career of the old warrior Lleyton Hewitt.
Like the Australian women, Swiss women’s tennis has known headier times, but the future for them looks bright, too, if a little more distant. They appeared to discover a new star in the 22-year-old Sadikovic and providing Timea Bacsinszky recovers fully, as she should, from two foot operations they will have solid back up for Voegele, who herself is only 21. They also introduced a 14-year-old rookie in Belinda Bencic to Fed Cup this past weekend and she gave a confident account of herself in the dead doubles rubber.
“[The emergence of Sadikovic] is going to push the whole team up,” said Jolissant. “What we have noticed in the past is if you just have one very good player and then a player between, say, 100 and 300, things just stay the same way. Now we have a young team. Providing they learn from these defeats they will improve.”
Australia and Switzerland are both awaiting the Draw for the World Group and World Group II play-offs, which is taking place in London on 14 February, to learn their next opponent. The Aussies are bidding for promotion, while the Swiss are hoping to avoid the drop to Group I.