By Adam Lincoln in Kharkiv
Ukrainian tennis heroine Alona Bondarenko won’t be able to complain about lack of support this weekend in Kharkiv, as the country's second largest city is listed as Alona’s official residence.
And this weekend’s World Group play-off against Australia marks the fourth time a Fed Cup by BNP Paribas tie has been held here, providing plenty of opportunities to build the fan base.
Among those lending support will be Alona’s sister and usual teammate, Kateryna. The younger sibling injured her left knee at Dubai in February. Alona reports that she is much better and, in fact, began practicing again a few days ago.
But among the legion of fans sure to turn out at the evocatively-named Palace of Sports ‘Locomotiv’, perhaps none will be so devoted as Alona’s dog, Emily.
In preparation for the tie, the tiny Yorkshire Terrier has been practicing her cheering, canine-style, in a corridor of the swish Aurora Hotel where the teams are staying. No sign though of Kateryna’s special friend, a chihuahua named Princess.
So is Emily, who sports an array of colourful bands and bobbles in her hair and rides in a smart tote bag, a true fan of tennis?
“Oh, yes, Alona giggles. “She’s travelled with us a lot already – even to the US. She’s my little girl. It’s tough for her on Tour, but she’s a good girl.”
Indeed, the petite pooch was even on hand at Friday’s official draw at the swanky new Superior Golf Club, which lies surrounded by forest on the outskirts of Kharkiv. (As it happens, one of the groundskeepers there is an Aussie.)
No word yet as to whether Emily will be granted a seat ringside to watch her mistress in action, but it’s a sure bet she’ll be waiting in the wings, ready to provide a slobbery kiss in victory… or defeat. That’s unconditional love for you.
Bonding during a journey
By Clive White in Rome
One wouldn’t think it true, but as it turns out even volcanic ash clouds, it seems, can have a silver lining.
At least for the Czech Republic team who bonded during their long trek to Rome to play Italy in the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas semifinal this weekend.
The world of travel has been shaken of late by the volcano eruption in Iceland and for international sports stars the journey to where they’ve had to be has been something for the memory books.
For some it hasn’t been a particularly successful time as football teams were forced to travel by road, rail and sea in order to fulfil sporting fixtures while the restrictions on flying remained in place.
Barcelona’s football team had to make a 450-mile coach journey to Milan for their Champions League semifinal first leg against Internazionale, and were said to look “leggy” in their 3-1 defeat. Liverpool players, meanwhile, hated the even longer trek to Madrid, where they eventually lost to Atletico in their Europa Cup semi-final first leg after a lethargic performance.
However, the Czech Republic’s Fed Cup team had the advantage over the soccer boys. They were able to start their 13-hour coach journey from Prague well in advance of this weekend’s semifinal tie. They arrived in Rome last Sunday and their captain, Petr Pala, said that they were all now well rested after their ordeal and ready to play.
Long journeys like these can have an upside. They can be a time where players get to know one another a little better, which can only be good for team spirit. The Czech players all seemed in good humour at Friday’s draw at the Foro Italico. On top of that, they are going into a tie in which they have nothing to lose and therefore can just swing away.
By Sandra Harwitt in Birmingham, Alabama
It’s commonplace to think that everyone who comes from the south in the United States is required to have a southern drawl.
But American teen Melanie Oudin is proof positive that you can hail from the south, but not sound as if you come from the south all the time.
Oudin, who grew up in Atlanta, just about two hours drive from Birmingham, the location of this week’s Fed Cup by BNP Paribas semifinal tie, is not easily distinguishable as a Southern belle. But that doesn’t mean that she isn’t capable of putting on the accent when needed.
Incentive came at the official player party on Thursday night when teammate Liezel Huber made a bet with Oudin. If she would give a little sample of her accent during a speech at the dinner, Huber said she would carry Oudin’s gear bag all weekend long.
Oudin didn’t hesitate, ending her brief speech with a very familiar Southern statement: “Now you all come back now, you here.” It was proof positive that Oudin is legitimately a Southern belle after all. As to whether Huber is indeed carrying Oudin’s racket bag, stay tuned.
* Friday's draw site was a picture of spring as it took place in the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, which is in full bloom. Bethanie Mattek-Sands took advantage of the locale to dress up by putting a beautiful flower in her hair. After picking the flower she wondered if she did a really bad no-no, but so far, so good, as no one from the Botanical Garden seemed to mind or take notice.
By Richard Fleming in Hasselt
Everybody has a tale to tell, of how they defied the volcanic ash to make sure that Fed Cup by BNP Paribas went ahead.
Here in Hasselt, it’s no different. I was stuck in the USA for four additional days - on holiday - and arrived back in London via Orlando, Detroit and Amsterdam… minus my luggage. Before anyone heads down-wind, I did manage to dig out some clean shirts and essentials before heading to this lovely Belgian town.
My story, though, is a little pathetic when compared with what the Estonian team endured. After all, I had spent more than three weeks in the Florida sunshine, and was not required to be in peak physical shape on arrival.
For Kaia Kanepi, Maret Ani, Anett Schutting and Margit Ruutel, however, it’s been quite an adventure. They left Estonia at 6pm on Monday, and arrived three minutes before the scheduled start of the press conference on Wednesday!
In between, they’d driven to the ferry port and across the sea to Sweden. Another ferry crossing was required to get from Sweden to Denmark (sleeping on-board), and then from Denmark to Germany. This was followed by a 600km trek across Germany, with an overnight stop in Hamburg.
Knowing how superstitious sports folk are, I wouldn’t bet against Estonian captain Rene Busch employing a similar tactic for future Fed Cup ties, should they win this weekend!
* And you do meet some wonderful people at these events. The driver who took me from the Ethias Arena to my hotel on Friday, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, couldn’t be more chatty. Making conversation, I enquired: “And what do you do when Fed Cup tennis is not taking place in Hasselt?”
“I’m an accountant for a pharmaceutical firm,” came the reply!
What if rain comes?
By Clive White in Rome
There could be more rain delays at the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas semifinal between Italy and Czech Republic than there are at Wimbledon.
Of course, now that The All England Club has gone to great expense to put a roof on Centre Court it doesn’t rain any more! But it’s the thought that counts.
The Italian Tennis Federation has also renovated its own Centre Court at the Foro Italico, where the Fed Cup tie is being played, but the €28 million refit hasn’t included a roof, which seems a bit of an oversight.
Apparently, because it’s a conservation area a roof wasn't allowed. Not that it would have been of any help to the Fed Cup event if they had done because the main court is being used for the Rome Masters, for which the qualifying has already started.
The Fed Cup tie is being played on the smaller court, the Stadio Nicola Pietrangeli, which has always been more open to the elements.
The Italian team, which was already favoured by the venue and the choice of surface, has been further helped by the rain, which is likely to make the clay even slower.
In football, a sodden surface is reckoned to be a great leveller, but it doesn’t quite work that way in tennis and the underdogs here - the Czech Republic team - are likely be seriously disadvantaged by the heavy rain since it is full of predominantly hard court specialists.
Lucie Safarova, the Czech No. 1, has only played one match on clay - in Barcelona last week - since last summer. But, at least the No. 2, Lucie Hradecka, got some practice in on the red stuff in qualifying at Acapulco before losing in the first round.
Perhaps Kveta Peschke, the team’s doubles specialist, should think about resuming her singles career. The 34-year-old hasn’t played singles since May 2007, when she sensationally beat Russian Nadia Petrova to reach the second round at Roland Garros.
Sandra, an American sportswriter for longer than she's willing to admit, has travelled the world to cover tennis for major publications, such as ESPN.com, The Miami Herald, and Associated Press. Her biggest problem of late is managing to pack worldwide purchases into suitcases and still meet the airline weight restrictions.