Tuesday February 8th, 2011

We are pleased to announce that women's tennis scored a resounding 3-1 victory over football in the realm of weekend intrigue. The categories:

1. Fed Cup d. the Super Bowl pre-game show, in a landslide. As Maria Sharapova's relationship with her native Russia grew more mysterious, Fox gave us a solid four-and-a-half hours of nothing. Absolute, 100 percent tedium.

2. Fed Cup d. the Super Bowl halftime show, at the wire. I guess it's a matter of taste, but to me, it's an easy call between such spectacularly dreadful entertainment and the drama surrounding Francesca Schiavone and Samantha Stosur.

3. The Super Bowl itself d. the Fed Cup, going away. Of course it did. Let's be realistic here.

4. Fed Cup d. the Super Bowl commercials, with ease, even if you were watching the United States women get routed by Belgium. We were glued to every commercial at my Super Bowl party until that guy sucked on another guy's finger, then began licking Doritos off a guy's pair of pants. That's when we resumed earnest conversation and trips to the refrigerator, while contributing generously to the Boycott Doritos campaign.

(And a quick word to any especially clever young man or woman looking to make some big money: Go into advertising. I'm begging you. Between the "idea" people and those giving approval, this is a business run by idiots.)

As mentioned, it was not a glorious Fed Cup weekend for the Americans. In fact, it was a disaster. We'll get to that later, because it was so pointedly overshadowed by the following:

• When Sharapova left Russia, about the time a kid enters grade school, she and her father left for good. Maria became fully Americanized, blessed with glamorous looks and an alluring demeanor that sent her straight to the top of the endorsement world. This didn't go over so well back home, where other players resented Sharapova and ridiculed the fact that she never (with scant few exceptions) returned to her homeland.

Sharapova had played Fed Cup only once (2008, in Israel) before the weekend, and in the wake of Russia's desperate 3-2 triumph over France, you wonder if she'll ever play it again. After a stunning loss to Virginie Razzano on opening day (the same Razzano she had routed at the Australian Open), Sharapova was brazenly replaced by 19-year-old Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova for the critical Sunday singles matches.

What a shocking move by Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev. He may not have anything against Sharapova personally, but he must have sensed her discomfort in the Moscow setting. It's well known that Sharapova has never been as thoroughly Russian as Svetlana Kuznetsova (who led the team to victory, in both singles and doubles) or the recently retired Elena Dementieva. She may be in high demand among fans, media and advertisers around the world, but she was deemed unfit -- emotionally -- to help Russia come back from a 2-0 deficit on home soil.

To put it another way: Russia chose a relatively unproven teenager over a three-time Grand Slam champion against a French player, Alize Cornet, ranked 67th in the world.

Reports suggested that Sharapova was a nervous wreck on her serve, committing eight double-faults and connecting on only 30 of 53 first serves. "The key was that I was able to put pressure on her serve," Razzano said. "She felt that pressure through the entire match."

• Reputations were solidified when Schiavone met Stosur during Sunday's play in the Italy-Australia tie, and led to great disappointment for the host Aussies. Schiavone, bouncing back from an opening-day loss to Jamila Groth, brought all of her fire and energy to a 7-6, 3-6, 7-5 win, fighting off 12 break points along the way. Stosur showed, once again, that she drifts out of character on the big stage.

Stosur was described as "unusually emotional and agitated" during the match by the esteemed Linda Pearce of The Age, and according to David Taylor, Stosur's personal coach and the Australia captain, "She needed to step up more in the crucial moments, stamp her authority on the match a little more. The way modern tennis is played, passiveness is death for a top player. It's a matter of being aggressive and having a little more composure in those situations."

For the blueprint in such matters, check out Schiavone's most able teammate, Flavia Pennetta, who won both of her singles matches and extended her Fed Cup winning streak to 10. And for the most flavorful quote, who else but Schiavone?

"Tennis is a strange sport," she said after the loss to Groth. "If you have a knife, you use the knife. If you have a bazooka, a Kalashnikov, you use those. Today, I was with knife, and she was better."

That's so true. I feel virtually unbeatable any time I've got my Kalashnikov.

• If you were impressed by Bojana Jovanovski and Petra Kvitova at the Australian Open, you weren't at all surprised by their Davis Cup performances. Kvitova, just 20 years old and already ranked 18th in the world, won both of her singles matches without even a hint of concern as the Czech Republic defeated the host Slovak Republic. And however detached Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic feel from the Fed Cup -- neither could summon the desire to play for Serbia against Canada -- Jovanovski stormed through two singles matches and the doubles without losing a set. Belgrade Arena thundered its approval for the 19-year-old Jovanovski, whose power off both wings is something to behold.

• The problem with Bethanie Mattek-Sands, currently the anchor of the U.S. team, is that it's so hard to take her seriously. She has spent most of her career taking the court in laughably poor-taste outfits, sporting red shoes and striped softball socks for the matches in Antwerp.

She's a fighter, though, and that's a precious commodity on the women's tour. If anything, she fights a little too hard sometimes, particularly with her go-for-broke stance on service returns. That was the case on Saturday when she held a set point on Wickmayer's serve at 5-4 in the second set, and also on consecutive points in the tiebreaker when Wickmayer, trying to hold on at 4-5, took command at 6-5 and eventually pulled it out.

You felt like telling her, "Don't wimp out, play it forcefully on the return -- but for heaven's sake, get it in."

• As for Melanie Oudin, who can't seem to beat anyone on any court in any country, I'm starting to wonder if her 2009 U.S. Open (a stirring run to the quarterfinals) was the worst thing that could have happened to her. It brought her too quickly into the spotlight, a flash of exposure not commesurate with her tepid game, and now she fights the burden of expectation every time out.

To sum up Oudin's Fed Cup weekend, she lost a 6-0 set to Clijsters, and she lost a 6-0 set to Wickmayer. She was absolutely blitzed out of both matches. She just doesn't have a way of hurting a forthright opponent, and in a truly sad development, she still has the same coach, Brian de Villiers, and he is still romantically involved with her mother. Good lord. Get some class.

• So what's more depressing: the Williams sisters returning to the U.S. team, or trying to find up-and-coming replacements for Mattek-Sands and Oudin?

Make no mistake, it would be refreshing to see Venus and Serena at the next Fed Cup venue, wherever it may be, in April. But it will be strictly a low-rent deal, in the so-called World Group Playoff, and the sisters, due to injuries and emotional detachment, haven't played Fed Cup since 2007.

The only reason they'd play in April is to make sure they qualify for the 2012 Olympics, and let's face it -- they've had their Olympic experience. It was terrific to watch, and they were marvelous ambassadors for America, but it's time to let other players enjoy that priceless opportunity.

Any suggestions?

After the 48th-ranked Mattek-Sands and No. 61 Oudin, the next American in the top 100 is No. 75 Vavara Lepchenko, who switched nationality from her native Uzbekistan three years ago and will become a U.S. citizen this year. She essentially has no credentials, most recently losing in the Sydney qualifying and the first round of the Australian Open. Then comes No. 86 Vania King, primarily a doubles specialist, and No. 97 Jill Craybas, who turns 36 later this year.

"It's definitely strange," Venus said recently, "because of the unbelievable tradition we've had with tennis in America since the beginning. With Serena and me, the standard has been set pretty high. Hopefully there will be someone coming along with the tools and the traits, and who will build that into their game to get there."

U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez must be tempted to just discard logic and throw a couple of kids -- say, Beatrice Capra and Laura Davis -- into the Fed Cup fray. But that would invariably lead to humiliation, considering the opposing teams (Italy and Belgium in particular) so laden with championship experience.

Instead, America's campaign depends on the Williams sisters, still deeply respected on the WTA Tour and the unquestioned queens of whimsy. This is an event best followed on a worldwide basis.

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