By Suzi Petkovski in Melbourne
A rowing race on Melbourne's Yarra River decided the order of play in Australia's Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group play-off tie against Ukraine.
A lob downriver from Rod Laver Arena, four double-sculls from the Banks Rowing Club powered their way from Princes Bridge with tennis balls on their bows bearing the names of the four singles players: Jarmila Groth and Anastasia Rodionova for Australia, Lesia Tsurenko and Olga Savchuk for Ukraine.
Olga's boat glided in first, giving her top billing on Saturday for her rubber with new Aussie spearhead Groth. “I felt it,” joked the 23-year-old Savchuk. “The boys in my boat were the cutest.”
A year ago, Australia's Davis Cup draw against Chinese Taipei was held at Melbourne Zoo. Capitalising on the insane popularity of a new baby elephant, a much bigger elephant sucked tennis balls carrying the players' names out of a bucket with its trunk and sprayed them at officials outside the enclosure. The elephant antics proved lucky for the Aussies, who won 5-0.
For today's 24-hour news cycle and hungry online media, pulling names out of a hat just doesn't do it.
Something new, something old
By Eleanor Preston in Moscow
One of the more endearing traditions of Fed Cup and Davis Cup play is the rookie speech. That’s when any debutantes on the team must stand up at the official dinner, held on the eve of the tie, and say all the right things in front of assembled players, coaches, officials, sponsors and dignitaries.
This tradition is usually accompanied by loud teasing from teammates and nervous looks from team managers and communications staff, lest anyone should forget themselves and say something silly.
So it came to pass that Alberta Brianti, as the newbie for Italy in this weekend’s semifinal against Russia, found herself standing on a podium in a Spanish restaurant (chosen, presumably, for its neutrality) in downtown Moscow on Thursday night.
Brianti looked, understandably, a little nervous as she was introduced in Russian and English. A few tables away, there was much banging of tables and cheering from her compatriots. Brianti handled the occasion with an aplomb which bodes well for her potential doubles match alongside Maria-Elena Camerin on Sunday.
Brianti said a few chosen words about how excited she is to play Fed Cup, thanked those involved in staging the tie, and did it all with an infectious giggle. “The speech was fun,” said Brianti, the following day, with more giggling.
There will be less giggling when it comes to the serious business of the weekend’s tennis, but then her team, already trailing Russia 2-0, appears to have a titanic task on its hands. This is not a surprise as Italy is missing their star players – reigning French Open champion Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta.
Brianti’s not the only debutante at this Fed Cup semifinal. The two-year-old Sports Palace Megasport is housing Fed Cup for the first time. This arena is located in a developing area of Moscow full of new apartment blocks and freshly-painted buildings.
Amid the newness around the Sports Palace, however, there is one incongruous reminder of this city’s past: a graveyard for old Soviet-era warplanes. They are lined up in neat rows and in varying states of dereliction – chipped paint and broken windows – but intact enough to make passing foreign visitors do a double take in case they are lined up in readiness for a refreezing of the Cold War.
The mix of the old and new is an appropriate metaphor for this tie, which is between two of the most successful and best established teams in Fed Cup competition, yet with player line-ups which, due to the addition of players like Brianti, have a fresh feel.
A year older, a month later
By Richard Fleming in Charleroi
A friend of mine noted an entry I’d made on a social networking site, advising that I was awaiting my Eurostar train from London to Brussels. His response was rather abrupt: “You practically live in Belgium!”
Although some way from the truth, I take his point. To be fair, I was here in Charleroi only last month for the Davis Cup tie involving Belgium and Spain. I was also in the presence of Clijsters and Co. this time last year, when Belgium met Estonia in Hasselt.
Three times in a year hardly allows me voting rights in Belgium’s local elections, but returning to Charleroi so soon after bidding farewell does seem a little strange.
The slag heaps are still here. For those washing their hair the last time I passed comment on one of Charleroi’s ‘big’ attractions, let me enlighten you. These are genuine slag heaps, promoted by the Charleroi Tourist Board, which you can wander up.
They failed to grip me the last time I was here. Fair to say, even waking to a beautiful spring morning, the thought of trudging up a slag heap was just above swimming with sharks, nursing an open wound, on my list of “things to do before I die”. Suffice to say, the tourist board is still extolling their virtues.
So, not much has changed since I was last here. For me, though, big changes. Since my last visit in early March, I’ve turned 40.
With my coming of age, I’ve taken time to reflect. What do I still want to achieve? Which direction will my life move? Should more energy be put into my children’s future? Questions that, as yet, I don’t have the answers to, but one thing’s for sure, at some stage in the next 12 months, I’ll be coming back to Belgium.
Mad for ice hockey
By Alexandra Willis in Minsk
Friday night in Minsk. What does one get up to? A bit of food, a bit of vodka, a bit of dancing perhaps?
No. Fridays are all about ice hockey. You may not have known it, but the sport made famous by films such as Miracle and the Mighty Ducks (yes, I confess to having seen them both) is a very big deal in Belarus. The President himself is a player and a fan, and even had the Belarus team visit him during ice hockey practice on Thursday night.
Fridays are game days. And so it was that various members of the Fed Cup contingent in Minsk flocked to the biggest of the city’s ice hockey stadiums to watch Belarus take on Denmark.
Roughly 3,000 people huddle together to watch the rough-and-tumble sport on a regular basis, and, being an international match, this one was no different. Until Denmark started winning, that is. The crowd sat in stunned silence as the boys in red-and-white dealt crunching blow after crunching blow, slipping and sliding their way to a 4-1 lead.
Belarus skated their way back to force Denmark into a sudden death shootout. You could cut the silence with a butter knife in the arena as the conclusion unfolded. Unfortunately for Belarus, the home crowd went home disappointed as Denmark won the game.
But the result didn’t prevent the usual 11pm after-game dinners from taking place.
Koper, a city with big plans for tennis
By Gorazd Jukovic in Koper
The port city of Koper, which is playing host to Fed Cup for the first time this weekend, is one of the settlements with the richest history in Slovenia. It’s also seen some of the fastest development of any place in Slovenia in recent years.
The city, which has grown from an island settlement dating back to ancient times (this has included reclamation of land which has connected it to the mainland), is enjoying a building boom that has been almost unaffected by the crisis which has hit the Slovenian construction sector in the wake of the recession.
New buildings and roads are springing up everywhere, so much so that I got lost twice trying to get to the courts because the GPS device in my car did not have the newest roads mapped.
Recently, the city also set about an ambitious goal of becoming a leading centre of sports in Slovenia. As part of this it has already renovated its central football stadium and is currently building a complex housing a pool centre.
And while the current Fed Cup tie is being played on a small outdoor court with makeshift stands, in the middle of what is essentially a park with sports facilities, it could well happen that in a couple of years tennis players will be playing on a stadium with a seating capacity of 8,000.
This, at least, is the plan of the city authorities, who made a last-minute push to have the tie with Canada played here. They hope that by bringing top-class tennis to the city, interest in the sport will grow. A win for Slovenia this weekend would help them extensively with their cause.
Lugano: a great and logical choice
By Marco Keller in Lugano
Lugano is one of the most beautiful cities in Switzerland and has a long tradition in sports. For several reasons, it is almost logical that the Swiss team has opted to play in the south of the country.
Whether it is in ice hockey, football or basketball, Lugano has a long tradition of strong teams and a passionate crowd which supports its favourites as much as possible. Also in tennis, Lugano has seen many greats: Chris Evert and Gabriela Sabatini played at the European Open before it moved to Lucerne and Zurich, and in the past years, the TC Lido Lugano hosted one of the most successful Challenger events in the world.
Other than this tradition, climatic advantages also speak for the city. In April, it is basically the only location in the country where you can risk playing outdoors on clay. And as all players have started the long preparation towards Roland Garros, it wouldn't be beneficial to play on any other surface, especially as Patty Schnyder and Timea Bacsinszky reach their maximum level on the red.
Lugano hasn't disappointed so far. The weather has been cooperative all week. The spectators, who have shown warm support on Saturday, have been rewarded with the Swiss team leading 2-0 after day one action. That leaves Switzerland only one win shy of returning to World Group II. "I'm really happy, we are here in Lugano," said Swiss captain Christiane Jolissaint, about the great and logical choice.
A no prancing Petkovic
By Sandra Harwitt
There’s one thing we know for sure: Andrea Petkovic is a woman of her word.
When she became the hit of the recent Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, whirling her way into the semifinals where she lost to Maria Sharapova, she did her on-court “Petko Dance” after each victory.
She really turned up her two-stepping after-match offering when she upset world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in the fourth round, followed by top tenner Jelena Jankovic in the quarterfinals.
But she also revealed that while fans have taken to her jig, she was going to retire it after Miami. Apparently, that is the case as she didn’t offer even a twist or a shake after beating Christina McHale 63 64 to give Germany a 1-0 lead over the USA in their Fed Cup World Group play-off.
It didn’t seem to bother the crowd that Petkovic didn’t dance her way off the court. She’s clearly become Germany’s new darling as fans cheered her name throughout the match.
The most famous player in the house, however, was Venus Williams. The American is injured and unable to play. But she came to offer her support to the team. Unfortunately, Williams’ appearance as a benchwarmer isn’t bringing good luck charm to USA: Germany lead 2-0 after the first day of play.