By Clive White in Besancon
The French Tennis Federation could hardly have chosen a more appropriate site than Besancon to make its last stand and fend off the ignominy of a second consecutive relegation in Fed Cup.
The city boasts one of the most famous citadels in the whole of France and has stood firm in the face of considerably greater threats - with all due respect - than that posed by the raiders from Slovenia in this World Group II play-off.
Its strategic importance was first recognised by Julius Caesar in 58BC, but it was Vauban, the great military engineer, at the behest of Louis XIV, who restructured the town’s defences, making it part of the great chain of military strongholds protecting the frontiers of France.
His belief was that it was sometimes necessary to surrender a piece of land that was indefensible in order to make the border stronger. Whether Nicolas Escude, the French Fed Cup captain, is a disciple of Vauban no-one’s too sure, but he may have attempted to do something similar by laying only a medium-fast hard court at the Palais des Sports arena.
The Slovenian players, whose strength is clay, have been pleasantly surprised by this decision: they had expected it to be much quicker. The blue acrylic court has been painted sideways rather lengthways to make it slower. One senses it has been laid primarily with Pauline Parmentier, the French No. 1, in mind.
It was her performances on a similar surface in the last tie, in Bratislava, when she lost narrowly to Daniela Hantuchova and Dominika Cibulkova that convinced Escude that this was the way to go.
Of course, Escude knows a thing or two about pulling off improbable victories on unlikely surfaces, having been the hero of France’s Davis Cup triumph in 2001 on the grass courts of Melbourne. On that occasion he beat the newly-crowned world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt and then Wayne Arthurs in the deciding rubber.
One of the great qualities of French tennis is the way that they rally round in moments of crisis - or in any moment come to that - so no-one should have been too surprised to see Julien Benneteau joining the French girls for breakfast on Saturday. Despite spraining a wrist and an ankle against Britain’s Andy Murray, he had hot-footed it straight up to Besancon from the Monte Carlo Masters to support them.
And as everyone from Julius Caesar to possibly Jimmy Connors knows, Besancon is not the easiest place to reach.
The perfect tennis palace
By Eloise Horsfield in Marbella
Its star-studded tennis past makes it the ideal venue for a Fed Cup tie.
Indeed, the Club de Tenis Puente Romano in Marbella - where this weekend Spain and Slovak Republic are head-to-head in their battle for a place in the World Group - was the chosen wedding venue for Swedish tennis great Bjorn Borg. And after marrying his first wife Mariana Simionescu here in 1980, the 11-time Grand Slam winner liked it so much he became a director shortly afterwards.
Another legend of the game became director of this tennis palace in 1983 – Spain’s own former world No. 1 Manolo Santana, who held the fort here until 1988.
The chosen venue for the Nations Senior Tennis Cup since 2004, many tennis veterans have come to play in Marbella including John McEnroe, Boris Becker and Jim Courier.
While it boasts some of the best tennis facilities in southern Europe, the first thing visitors will notice is its stylish whitewashed villas in the Andalusian style, attractively ordained with floral displays standing proudly in the Costa del Sol’s dependable year-round sunshine.
As well as impressive golf and tennis facilities and picture-postcard sea views, there’s even an authentic first century Roman bridge on site.
And as you’d expect from a club directed by a Spanish player, who before triumphing at Wimbledon in 1966 famously declared that “Grass is just for cows”, you won’t find any of that here – only clay and hard courts.
Catching up with old friends
By Sandra Harwitt in Kharkiv
The ITF VIP at the tie between Ukraine and USA this weekend is Ruxandra Dragomir, who currently serves as President of the Romanian Tennis Federation.
Dragomir is no stranger to a number of members of Team USA delegation and that’s not because she’s the head honcho of tennis in Romania. Rather it’s because three of the members of the American contingent played against Dragomir when she was a player.
There’s USA captain Mary Joe Fernandez, world No. 1 doubles player Liezel Huber and 13-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams.
Fernandez and Dragomir first encountered each other this weekend in the lobby of the Superior Golf & Spa Resort on Thursday afternoon. They started to reminisce about the old days and checked out there ages. Fernandez turned 40 already and Dragomir will join the 40-something set in October.
Next there was Huber and Williams in the lobby and they started to chat. When Dragomir said she’s played both of them, Williams laughed and shook her head in affirmative nod. She might be 10 years younger than Dragomir but Williams was playing the tour in her early teens.
“It was a lot of fun playing them,” Dragomir said of the American threesome. “We had a good time.”
Nowadays, Dragomir is all about business and after her playing days she sought a university diploma as preparation.
Prior to heading up the Romanian Federation, Dragomir spent four years as the Romanian Fed Cup captain. She remembers the level of effort the players put in for her when she was captain.
“I used to say to the girls, “Are you tired? Do you need to rest?” Dragomir said. “They were working so hard I was like a mother and worried. But then I remembered when I was a player I worked as hard, too.”
She obviously did. Dragomir reached a career high ranking on No. 15 and won four singles titles and five doubles titles during her career. She holds the Romanian Fed Cup record for most wins at 30-17.