By Marco Keller in Lugano
Tennis is one of the most individual sports, but for the few weeks of Fed Cup by BNP Paribas team spirit plays an important role. In Lugano, the Swiss and Swedish teams were living it up to the max.
Swedish athletes have always had a sense for team spirit. Whether it is in football, ice hockey or any other sport: The "Tre Kronor" have always relied on strong team performances. Denying the country's call, as it happens a lot in other nations, has never been an option for Sofia Arvidsson: "It's always an honour to play for our country."
Arvidsson and Johanna Larsson basically form the strength of the Swedish team on court, but captain Maria Strandlund-Tomsvik points out Fed Cup is a joint effort from all four players: "Of course, Johanna and Sofia have assumed great responsibility. But what the other members of the team, Anna Brazhnikova and Sandra Roma, do for us is equally important, and I really mean it."
The Swiss also live the Fed Cup spirit to the full extent. When all the questions in Tuesday's pre-draw press conference were directed to Patty Schnyder and Timea Bacsinszky, the latter interrupted and started to ask questions to the other team members, Stefanie Voegele and Amra Sadikovic.
"We really have an exceptional team spirit," Schnyder said.
This was shown throughout the week in the beautiful city in the south, a week that was more than just hard practise hours. The Swiss took to the lake on Tuesday night and were a bit surprised by the rather strong conditions, but got home untroubled.
On Wednesday, they spent the afternoon playing "kidstennis" - an initiative by the national federation - with local kids on the Piazza Alessandro Manzoni. And the spirit even extended to the local authorities: When Patty Schnyder hit a few balls with the vice-mayor, Erasmus Pelli, the magistrate didn't play at full speed in order to "guarantee that Patty is fit on the weekend." Considerate of him, but it’s unlikely he would take much out of Schnyder’s ability to perform.
Nic of time
By Suzi Petkovski in Melbourne
The last time Melbourne staged a Fed Cup tie, it was still the Federation Cup and played as an all-in jamboreee over one week. Fluoro fashion, '80s hair and teams from 52 nations colonised the spanking new Flinders Park (now Melbourne Park) in December 1988.
Czechoslovakia defeated USSR 2-1 in the final; both nations no longer exist. (Nor do Yugoslavia and the Federal Republic of Germany.) All ties consisted of three rubbers, not five. But a tall, smooth-stroking 19-year-old who made her Fed Cup debut at that 1988 event is still in the Aussie team 22 years later.
Nicole Bradtke, Australia's coach, hazily recalls the week when she played as Nicole Provis and Australia lost to West Germany in the quarterfinals. “It was so long ago,” says the Melbournian, still svelte and effortlessly chic at 41. “It was in December and obviously in the days when all the countries played together in one venue. I was coming off a very big year for me.”
On the clay at Roland Garros that year, Nicole had match point against Natasha Zvereva in the semifinals (Zvereva was crushed 60 60 in the final by Steffi Graf in the German's Golden Grand Slam year). Bradtke waited another five years to face Steffi on clay; the result was a 64 16 61 career-best win to the Aussie in the 1993 Fed Cup at Frankfurt, on Graf's home clay, no less.
Bradtke forms a Fed Cup tag-team with Aussie captain David Taylor – “It's a great blend that really works” - and has served as interim coach to Fed Cuppers Alicia Molik, Sam Stosur and more recently Sally Peers, making her debut this weekend in the doubles. She has also toured with junior Fed Cup teams. “It's a joy to watch the youngsters come up and get ready to enter the Fed Cup team.”
Of that class of '88, the Aussie is one of several alumni still in the hunt for Fed Cup success. Sabine Appelmans is the Belgium captain. Maria Strandlund is the captain of Sweden. Larisa Neiland, who lost in the final in 1988, went on to coach Russia.
Bradtke, who ranked as high as No. 24 and retired aged 27, has two sons with her husband, former basketball star Mark Bradtke. The couple met at the Barcelona Olympics, where Nicole bagged a bronze medal in doubles. “With my family, I can't go on the road for weeks on end,” she explains. “I thoroughly look forward to the Fed Cup weeks. It's a really good balance I've got going.”
A founding member of the Basketballers' Wives club, Nic has been joined by fellow tennis stars Kim Clijsters (aka Mrs Brian Lynch) and Maria Sharapova (technically not a wife but engaged to NBA player Sasha Vujacic). What is it with basketballers and WTA stars? “It must be these tall, strapping men that we just love,” Nicole observes with a laugh. “We're reasonably tall girls, so we need men with extra height. We can wear our high heels.”
For Bradtke and her team this weekend, after six years of exile from the elite Fed Cup nations, it's all about high-stepping back into the World Group.
Fed Cup plays the palace
By Adam Lincoln in Lleida
Fed Cup host nations take pride in using the opportunity to showcase what are often lesser-known destinations by holding the traditional Friday draw in special venues.
On that front it’s hard to beat the Salo de la Paeria in the Palau de La Paeria, a 700 year-old palace in Lleida (more yay-da than lie-da), the Catalonian city northwest of Barcelona where Spain plays France in this weekend’s World Group play-offs.
Built in the 12th Century, around the time the Moors were booted out after four centuries of rule, the palace harbors a range of treasures and showcases a succession of styles, from Romanesque to the neo-medievalism.
Its facade boasts five Romanesque windows, each divided into three parts divided by slender elongated columns, and richly decorated cornices, capitals and corbels.
Although the facade is currently behind scaffolding, the windows could be enjoyed to full effect as the sun streamed in on Friday morning. As they sat in their assigned seats, the players looked like opposing four-woman juries in a particularly ornate court.
The Paheri Palace, as it is known, was the stately mansion of the Sanahuja family back in the 13th century, when they handed it over as the seat of the municipal government – which remains its function today.
Inside is a square courtyard with stone arches, currently housing a photographic exhibition. As well as prison cells, the basement holds the ruins of structures dating back to Roman times and the 5th Century BC.
Will any history be made in Lleida this weekend? Well, if the Spaniards are victorious, they will send France out of the World Group for the first time ever.
As it happens, the city also has a square and church named for Sant Joan… but happily for Aravane, Virginie, Alize and Pauline, these, of course, honour St John the Baptist - not Joan of Arc!
By Clive White in Bratislava
With all due respect to Anna Kournikova, women players mostly prefer to be recognised for the stunning nature of their shots than their faces.
So when the master of ceremonies at the official dinner for the Slovak Republic’s World Group play-off against Serbia suggested this was as much a beauty contest as a tennis match he may not have struck quite the right note.
The girls, of course, did look great, but when invited to parade before the guests in cat-walk fashion, they politely declined. Ana Ivanovic hadn’t made it to the dinner in time, but would no doubt have concurred. “We’ll put on a show for you on the clay at the Sibamac Arena on Saturday and Sunday instead,” seemed to be their joint response.
It was fitting that in this big pre-Olympic year that among the dinner guests should be Miloslav Mecir, who, under the old flag of Czechoslovakia, won the gold medal in the men’s singles when tennis returned to the Olympics at the 1988 Seoul Games after a 64-year absence.
Even Sisa Sklovska, a famous Slovakian singer, could not entice Daniela Hantuchova onto the dance floor at Bratislava’s Hotel Sheraton, but eventually she was joined by Jelena Jankovic, Dominika Cibulkova, Aleksandra Krunic and the Slovak Republic’s captain, Matej Liptak.
Ms Sklovska has become something of a lucky mascot for the Slovak team, having sung before at the official dinner prior to a home team victory. This was not good news for the Serbs, who have lost twice to their hosts recently. This will be their third Fed Cup tie against one another in three-and-a-half years.
“We can’t go on meeting like this,” was the gist of Slobodan Zivojinovic’s response on behalf of the guests. Zivojinvoic, the president of the Serbian Tennis Federation, joked that he would be having a word with the ITF about it.
Winning with the wind
By Gorazd Jukovic in Koper
The Slovenian team is looking for an odd ally to help it with its bid to secure a second consecutive year of play in Fed Cup’s World Group II.
They’re hoping strong gusts of wind will help them to successfully challenge Canada in this weekend’s play-off in Koper. The Slovenians believe the win can give them an upper hand due to their extra experience playing in such conditions.
Playing on the open courts in Slovenia's Littoral region frequently means contending with wind. The Littoral is indeed one of the windiest areas in the country. Like in other parts of western Slovenia, the most fearsome wind here is the bora (“burja” in Slovene), which can lash out at speeds in excess of 100 km/h (in some areas further inland, it sometimes nears speeds of 200 km/h).
The bora is a north to north-easterly katabatic wind – it brings colder, denser air from high-altitude areas to low-lying areas. The relationship of the locals with the bora is best described as one of respectful admiration: while having to contend with its forces, they are also aware that the wind is most often a bringer of extended sunny spells of weather.
So, far from being just a nuisance, the strong gusts in the coastal areas are also a source of thrill (sailing, windsurfing and kite-surfing are all popular here) and, more importantly, income: the lengthy sunny periods make it one of the most fertile wine-growing areas in the country. Moreover, in a world where renewables is the buzz word in energy, wind may play a key role in replacing some of the finite sources of power in Slovenia.
That said, the visiting Canadians were not about to give the wind edge to the home team. Rebecca Marino, Canada’s top player, said she’s played in gusty weather, too.