I can't remember watching more than a handful of Fed Cup matches in my life -- mostly because nobody ever seemed to care -- but there was a lot at stake in Birmingham, Ala., with the U.S. team facing Russia. Against all odds, I found myself emotionally involved in a match between Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Ekaterina Makarova. And it was cool to see a joyous U.S. team celebrating its trip to the Fed Cup finals against Italy in November.
So what year is that, 2011? You can never be sure with this event. In a development so lame as to be inconceivable, the Fed Cup semifinals were overshadowed by preliminary Fed Cup action around the world -- specifically, four sets of "playoffs" to see who qualifies for the World Group next year. Amazing, isn't it? That's like interrupting Game 3 of the World Series for a few spring-training updates.
This will always be a problem as long as the Fed Cup, along with the men's Davis Cup, insist on staging their events over months on end. The tour schedules are suffocatingly crowded as it is, with no sense of structure or continuity, so you can understand why the women's tour jumped on an open weekend to stage a global Fed Cup festival.
Make no mistake, though: Those "playoffs" stole every bit of relevance from the semifinals, on many fronts:
• In the Belgium-Estonia tie, Kim Clijsters tore a muscle in her left foot during a victory against Maret Ani, leaving her French Open status in doubt. Yanina Wickmayer stepped into the fray and ignited Belgium's victory by defeating Kaia Kanepi.
• The chilly relationship between two of the world's most glamorous players, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic, gained clarity as Serbia met the Slovak Republic. Jankovic is fanatical in her devotion to the Serbian team, and she was determined to play despite a painful injury to her left wrist. To get to her home country in time through a maze of volcanic-ash confusion, "I boarded in Tampa, flew to Atlanta and then waited seven hours for a connecting flight to Tel Aviv, from where I went to Lamanca in Cyprus and then finally to Belgrade."
Jankovic had been disappointed by Ivanovic's desultory performances in prior Fed Cup play, so you can imagine her reaction when Ivanovic bailed out of this one altogether, saying, "After all that has happened lately, it's not the right time for me to be part of the team." Maybe not, but if she played anywhere near form, Ivanovic could have helped Serbia stay in the World Group. As it was, Jankovic defeated Magdalena Rybarikova on Saturday, but Daniela Hantuchova became the hero on hostile territory, defeating Bojana Jovanovski and then Jankovic, 7-6, 7-5, to help clinch the Slovak victory.
• SamanthaStosur's rise to elite status is one of the top storylines heading into the French Open, where Stosur reached the semifinals last year. She impressively won the Family Circle Cup title in Charleston last week, and she led Australia to a 5-0 rout of Ukraine with two big wins in singles over the weekend.
ESPN didn't give a damn about any of this, charting out a 90-minute Sunday SportsCenter without a single mention of Fed Cup. Maybe that's what happens when the U.S. takes on Russia with Melanie Oudin, still just 18 and trying to find her way, and Mattek-Sands, ranked No. 129 in the world. Who else was going to play -- Vania King? Jill Craybas? America's lack of depth in the women's game is nothing short of ghastly, and when the Fed Cup rolls around, it puts a lot of pressure -- much of it unwarranted -- on the Williams sisters.
Everyone knows that Venus and Serena march to the whimsy of their personal fairies, and that's fine; they own a bunch of major titles, they have wonderful lifestyles, they haven't burned out, and they're still a huge threat (particularly Serena) at every Grand Slam event.
It's just that the Fed Cup deserves more than their cavalier approach. Serena upset a lot of people when she skipped last year's final against Italy, claiming fatigue, and Venus waited until Wednesday of last week before ruling herself out (with a knee injury) against Russia. That put coach Mary Joe Fernandez in an awkward position -- come on, Venus, in or out? -- although it became a unifying force among the players she had available.
"If Venus and Serena don't play, it's very tough for me to be supportive of their decision," said Liezel Huber, whose clutch doubles play (with Mattek-Sands) earned the U.S. its decisive victory on Sunday. "Come Olympic time, they have to understand that the people that are loyal, I would hope, are going to go ahead of them." (Good luck with that. When the sisters announce their Olympic intentions, the word "kowtow" will come heavily into play.)
Fernandez, ever cool and composed, held back any negative comments. A more incisive critique came from Peter Bodo, the long-respected tennis writer, on his ESPN.com blog: "All these protestations from the sisters about how much they love to play for the U.S., how eager they are to serve, how patriotic they really feel, ring false and self-serving. It's painfully obvious that the sisters are just blowing smoke. I can see why they would not choose to play, but why couldn't they (wo) man up, like that pair of Davis Cup stalwarts Andy Roddick and James Blake did when they announced in January that they were not playing Davis Cup this year?"
As Matt Cronin noted on tennisreporters.net, "Serena has played four ties in the last 11 years and has contested just one match of serious significance (in 1999). She is the least committed Fed Cup player in U.S. history."
I'd love to have seen some weekend footage of Jankovic, Hantuchova, Clijsters, Henin or Stosur on ESPN, but I can see why the network passed on U.S.-Russia. Three cheers for Mattek-Sands' great spirit, and it's a good thing Huber, a South African, became a U.S. citizen three years ago. But it's hardly an impressive win when Russia shows up with just three women, two of whom are Marakova, a first-timer in this realm, and Alla Kudryavtseva.
Even the Oudin-Elena Dementieva match lacked quality, descending into a comedy of unforced errors and service breaks (10 straight at one point). It's a pretty sad story when two exceptional athletes, each with a crushing forehand, don't have the slightest idea how to use an economical toss and lean rhythmically into a first serve for maximum power. It's a plague that has spread throughout the tour, and when you consider the massive strides made by women in other sports, from basketball and softball to skiing and big-wave surfing, it's appalling to watch.
So we press on now, waiting for the next Fed Cup and Davis Cup action with only a vague notion of how either process works. I would submit this choice to both:
(A) Adhere proudly to your wonderful tradition. Continue watching players abandon their national teams because the event carries so little significance. Rudely interrupt the clay-court season with hard-court demands, or vice versa. Thrill to such riveting terms as "tie" and "rubber." Keep the public utterly in the dark. Hear derisive laughter from the television networks. But, man, what tradition.
(B) Set aside the month of November for both. Nothing else on the tennis schedule, just a month-long, flag-waving festival of national pride. The timing couldn't be better, with the baseball postseason just completed and both the NFL and NBA in early-season stages. Invite the top 16 countries, based on individual rankings. Have the key players take most or all of October off, after the pulsating grind of the U.S. Open, to be totally fresh. All of a sudden, here comes Roger Federer, who hasn't played Davis Cup in six years. Here comes some big television money and millions of fans catching World Cup fever, tennis style.
Clearly, in the eyes of the International Tennis Federation, the answer is (A). See you at Thanksgiving, and bring the Easter eggs.