By Adam Lincoln in Lleida
The Spanish Fed Cup team couldn’t have asked for a classier fan club this weekend, with their celebrated countrywoman Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario in town to lend her support.
As well as being a four-time Grand Slam singles champion (three wins at her beloved Roland Garros, one at Flushing Meadows) and former world No. 1 in both singles and doubles, Sanchez-Vicario, now 39, is a bona fide Fed Cup legend.
Between 1986 and 2002 she competed in 58 ties. In the end, she was 50-22 in singles and 22-6 in doubles, for 72 wins overall. Each of these match win tallies remains the record. Eighteen of her doubles victories were achieved with Conchita Martinez; they are still the most successful doubles partnership in the competition’s history, and together lifted the Fed Cup trophy five times during the 1990s.
On Saturday, Sanchez-Vicario could be seen in the presidential box, sitting next to her husband Jose Santacana, and their two-year-old daughter, Arantxa, on her lap. As the day wore on, the couple took turns watching the tennis and taking little Arantxa for a break.
“Being here definitely brings back special memories,” said the gracious icon when ambushed on the grounds of the Club de Tenis Lleida. “Now it’s a different story – I’m on the ‘other’ side, so it’s more relaxed. But I loved to play Fed Cup for my country. I never missed a round and I still think it’s very exciting. And of course I still want for Spain to be the best – and back in the World Group.”
These days, Sanchez-Vicario is also kept busy in her role as co-tournament director of the Barcelona Ladies Open. As soon as Saturday’s matches were over she was heading straight back home to continue preparations for the WTA event, which gets underway next weekend.
“Yes, it’s a busy time, but I’m looking forward to a good tournament,” she said. “I’m looking forward to having the most crowds, great matches. Good players are coming. Hopefully they can enjoy it and it can be a success.”
The Sanchez clan is, of course, tennis royalty, with Arantxa’s brothers Emilio and Javier both having enjoyed successful pro careers, and sister, Marisa, played college tennis in the United States. Might Arantxa II continue the dynasty one day?
“She loves tennis,” her mama smiled. “She’s been really good, watching the first two matches. Just now in the third set we went to play because she wanted to play. But, so far, so good… I mean, she’s only little, but she likes to watch and that’s a good sign!”
A sea of red and white
By Eleanor Preston in Moscow
There is no question of Russia’s dominance over Italy in Moscow this Fed Cup by BNP Paribas weekend, but the home team also won a lesser-known contest that runs side-by-side with the tennis at these ties – the battle of the entourages.
Almost all the people wandering around the endless corridors of the Sports Palace Megasport seem to be wearing the eye-catching red and white Russian tracksuits, so much so that they could easily field a couple of ice hockey teams for one of the matches this brand new stadium regularly holds.
The weekend’s most celebrated Russian supporter, however, was wearing a sober grey suit. Marat Safin, formerly a merrymaker on the tour, was all business as he watched Vera Zvonareva and Svetlana Kuznetsova. He was so focused on his compatriots on court that he probably didn’t notice the frisson of excitement that went through everyone – especially women - that went anywhere near him. If the Russians needed a devastating weapon in the battle of the entourages, then he was undoubtedly it.
Safin is not the only recently-retired player engaged in helping the team, however. Former Roland Garros champion, Anastasia Myskina, and ex-top 10 pro, Elena Likhovtseva, are both attached to Team Russia in advisory roles and their involvement is an illustration of just how committed players are to Fed Cup, even after they have hung up their rackets. No doubt having experienced voices in the locker room – especially empathetic fellow female players – is a help to Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev.
Zvonareva, who led the line brilliantly all weekend, has also bought her coach and former model, Sergey Demekhine, along. Like Safin, he is a former player and, like Safin, he is not without his female admirers (even when wearing bright red and white nylon). Former player Larissa Savchenko (nee Neiland) is also here, in her capacity as coach to Svetlana Kuznetsova, and she too is bringing a wealth of playing and coaching experience to the Russian bench.
The Italian team can hardly match that line-up, and sadly for the two-time Fed Cup defending champions that turned out to be the story of the tie for them. They have not been without their supporters in Moscow, for as well as bringing a sizeable contingent from the Italian Tennis Federation, the away team has also enjoyed noisy support from some (albeit small) sections of the crowd. It seems news of this Fed Cup semifinal found ex-patriot Italians in Moscow and they came to offer encouragement that was the very least that their players deserved.
No amount of cheering would have stopped what was always likely to be the outcome of this semifinal – victory for Russia against a determined, but weakened Italian team. When the end came, Zvonareva settled things with victory over Vinci in Sunday’s opening rubber. The lasting picture of a mass of red and white tracksuits jumping up in celebration summed things up nicely.
A model effort
By Clive White in Bratislava
Those Slovak Republic tennis fans who believe in lucky omens will be keeping a close eye on the outcome of the world ice hockey championship when it comes to Bratislava in a fortnight’s time.
While those who know a slap shot from a drop shot will tell you that Canada are red-hot favourites to win – that’s if it’s possible to be red-hot on ice – the locals here in Bratislava are dreaming of home glory.
They still recall 2002 with great pride: that was the year when Slovak Republic defeated the might of Russia 3-2 in Gothenburg to win the World Championship gold medal for the one and only time in its short history.
By happy coincidence it was also the prelude to Slovak Republic winning the Fed Cup for the one and only time in their history six months later, beating Spain 3-1 in the final. Daniela Hantuchova, who was the star of the show winning both her rubbers, is the only survivor from that team.
In a show of support she and the rest of the Slovak players visited the Bratislava Motor Show last week, suitably – and of course fetchingly - attired in Slovak Republic national ice hockey shirts. The latest models at the show obviously had some competition.
I suppose it would be too much to ask those burly ice hockey pros to reciprocate the gesture by turning out in natty tennis gear in support of the girls, should they win back their place in the World Group at Serbia's expense this weekend?
On second thoughts, it’s probably better if the girls keep supporting the men.
Behind the scenes
By Richard Fleming in Charleroi
The players may be the stars of the show, but like the wonderful Wizard of Oz, there’s much that goes on behind the curtain that you and I don’t get to see.
Fans have come out in their thousands over the weekend to watch the likes of Wickmayer and Kvitova, but none of it would have been possible without the support of so many unsung heroes (and heroines). And they come in all shapes and sizes.
There are, of course, the ball boys and girls, the line judges, and those overseeing Hawkeye. But there are also those without any direct link to the action we see out on court – security, catering staff, stewards, first-aiders, the list goes on.
And then there are the drivers, ferrying players and officials to and from the venue. Many of them are taking leave from their regular job (usually well paid) to be a part of something special. They work long hours, waiting patiently to take the first players to practice early in the morning, and still going strong when the last of the officials have finished for the night.
One driver, who has had to endure my banal anecdotes over the past few days, is studying for a Bachelor’s Degree in business management. The university he attends has broken up for the Easter holidays. Another is a senior manager within a company, responsible for many staff. Both love their tennis, and see this as the perfect way to spend the weekend.
Most of those involved in bringing Fed Cup to the people are volunteers. Here, not because they have to, but because they want to. Tennis thrives thanks to big-name players, conjuring up fabulous action. It survives thanks to those working tirelessly behind the scenes. That’s team-work.
Back to the burbs
By Suzi Petkovski in Melbourne
Jarmila Groth calls it ‘really cute’. Aussie captain David Taylor said the first thing he noticed was the alcoholic refreshment in the team lounge. It takes Sally Peers back to the under-12s. Olga Savchuk simply ‘feels like at home.’
The talking point? Glen Iris Valley Recreation Club in suburban Melbourne, the venue for the Australia-Ukraine World Group play-off tie.
Everyone this week has had fun with the off-Broadway setting; the big contrast between the Australian Open at Melbourne Park and a Fed Cup face-off at a suburban club.
Elsewhere in Fed Cup this weekend, teams are battling it out in vast arenas: Belgium v Czech Republic at the Spiroudome in Charleroi; Germany versus the US in Stuttgart’s Porsche Arena; Belarus hosting Estonia in the Palace of Sport in Minsk; the Russians, not to be outdone, taking on Italy in Moscow’s Sports Palace Megasport, no less. For Australia v Ukraine, it’s back to the burbs.
Glen Iris Valley is an attractive two-tier layout, with 12 en-tout-cas courts, the coarser Melbourne version of European clay. The match court here is the original gravelly surface converted to fine brick-dust. Players say it’s akin to the heavier German clay court. According to Groth after her 61 61 first rubber blitz, it’s ‘a perfect court’.
Your correspondent can also vouch for the quality of the courts, having been thrashed here a few weeks back in Tuesday ladies’ comp (sorry OLGC team!). Famous members of the club include Davis Cupper Wayne Arthurs and his late father Derek Arthurs, who played Davis Cup for Ireland.
The club backs onto a golf course and sits in Melbourne’s affluent eastern suburbs. The surrounding foliage is flecked with autumnal hues. It’s quite a mellow setting, a break from the usual tennis mouse-wheel, and the players are enjoying their time here.
‘It’s wonderful,’ says Groth. ‘I think the club is really cute.’
‘It’s pretty nice club,’ says the chatty Olga Savchuk. ‘Different from Australian Open, of course. It feels like at home.’
Aussies as we know are a welcoming lot but the hosts are starting to wonder if they haven’t made too cosy a home away from home for the visiting Ukrainians, who won the tie 3-2.
Fed Cup ties are supposed to be home or away. Melbourne has introduced a new category: the make-yourself-at-home tie.
A city full of surprises
By Alexandra Willis in Minsk
What springs to mind when you think of the city of Minsk? A cold, grey place where everyone shuffles around in non-descript shiny puffa jackets, heads down as they go about their daily industrial business?
In fact, the capital of Belarus could not be more different. Row upon row of grandiose Parisian-style edifices line the city’s main streets, sunshine glints down on ancient churches and theatres, and in between, the odd spot of greenery on the banks of the Svislach and Nemiga rivers flourish in the city’s continental climate.
But the Minsk of today, this clean and compact city, is not the Minsk that was a provincial city within the principality of Polotsk in the 11th century or part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania between 1242 and 1569, or annexed by Russia in 1793, or the site of one of the largest Nazi-run ghettos during World War II.
In fact, the modern Minsk is an entirely new construction, razed to the ground and rebuilt by the Soviet Republic during the Stalin years. But, surprisingly, unlike other parts of the former USSR, it was not re-built as a monolithic mass of grey buildings. Quite the contrary. Instead Minsk is a product of the second wave of Stalinist architecture – ornate buildings, broad avenues and wide squares.
One particular gem among the architecture discovered by the Fed Cup contingent is a restaurant called the Grand Café. French-sounding, but with an Italian menu, it also offers a lot of local delicacies, such as smoked salmon, lots and lots of fish, and of course, lots of vodka.
And, there is a lot more to the city than meets the eye. If you leave the wide avenues and head underground, there is a whole world of local restaurants, vodka bars, and more than 30 places to dance. Or so I am told. One particular local speciality is pieces of frozen fish, or, alternatively, an entire pig.
So, if ever you have cause to visit the Belarusian capital, it is well worth it. A beautiful eye-opener to say the least.
By Sandra Harwitt
No, this is not an item suggesting that Team USA might have the Schweine Flu as explanation for their very lopsided loss to Germany in the World Group play-offs this weekend.
It’s rather designed to let Stuttgart tourists know that the Schweine Museum, billed the largest pig museum in the world, is located within the German city.
The museum has 26 rooms packed with porcine paraphernalia: paintings, sculptures, knick-knacks, and every fact you can imagine related to pigs. As in there’s 37,000 items on display. For instance, if you want to know the history of the piggy bank, it will be at the Schweine Museum. If you want to know about extinct pigs, you’ll find out at the Schweine Museum.
Appropriately, the museum is located in a former abattoir. However, it might seem to be going too far to have one of their eateries dubbed the “Slaughterhouse Terrace,” don’t you think?