Monday, April 24, 2006

Wk.16-Viva Italia!

Pretty soon, the rise of the WTA's Italians isn't going to be so much of a secret anymore. In fact, their "incognito time" under the tennis radar might have officially come to a spectacular end this weekend.

2006's first Fed Cup weekend produced a few noteworthy results. One, courtesy of a stack of spiked Waffles in Belgium, will prevent the Russians from a three-peat championship in September. But that outcome wasn't nearly as surprising as what happened on the French red clay. In Nancy, the Italians noodled a way to keep the 2003 FC champion (and 2004-05 RU) French squad from a fourth straight appearance in the final.

Apparently, sometimes the "between-the-cracks" happenings of the early WTA season do mean something. Even before this weekend's coming out party, the success of the Italians on tour this season has been one of the more surprising occurrences. While time was spent wondering how well the Chinese or Czechs might do, the Italians have stolen their thunder time and time again in 2006. Noodle #1 Francesca Schiavone (currently ranked #11, leading the four-pack of Italians in the Top 50) still hasn't won her first career title, but the strides the group has made as a whole in one-quarter of a season have more than made up for that. After Italian players reached seven tour singles finals (winning two titles) in all of 2005, they've already reached six (winning one) this year, placing them right in the productivity mix with the sport's powerhouse contingents.

10...Russia (6 titles)
6....France (4)
6....ITALY (1)
4....Belgium (2)


As the season goes on, with a healthy pair of Belgians in action, the Italians will likely slip in the standings (and don't count out the Czechs down the stretch, either). But sixteen weeks of success isn't a fluke. This weekend proved that.

Viva Italia!

*GROUP I - 1st Round*
Belgium def. Russia 3-2
USA def. Germany 3-2
Italy def. France 4-1
Spain def. Austria 5-0

Japan def. Switzerland 4-1
Croatia def. Argentina 3-2
Czech Republic def. Thailand 4-1
China def. Indonesia 4-0

Semifinals: Belgium vs. USA, Italy vs. Spain

Group I Playoffs: Austria, China, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Japan, Russia

Group II Playoffs: Argentina, Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Israel, Slovak Republic, Switzerland, Thailand



PLAYERS OF THE WEEK: Francesca Schiavone & Justine Henin-Hardenne
...knocking off Nathalie Dechy (at least in her current form) wasn't exactly monumental, but taking out historically one of the best Fed Cup players around in Amelie Mauresmo sure was. It's onto the semifinals for Italy, with Schiavone leading the way. Now, there's still that pesky thing about winning a tour title... but that detail can be shelved, at least for now. Meanwhile, JHH finally transformed into Le Petit Taureau again in the nick of time, grabbing the Belgian team's fate by the scruff of the neck and pulling it to safety (via a long three-set win over Nadia Petrova) after Kim Clijsters was knocked over by Elena Dementieva in the opening Russia/Belgium match.
RISERS: Na Li & Anabel Medina-Garrigues
...taking the lead for China, Na Li's 2-0 singles record spearheaded a not-so-easy (the first two matches went to three sets, with Cookies prevailing in both) Group II win over Indonesia. Now, the Chinese are just a July playoff win away from reaching Group I 1st Round play for 2007. In the least competitive of the major Fed Cup matchups (5-0!), Medina-Garrigues went 2-0 while wielding the lead sledgehammer in Spain's bonecrushing win over Austria in 1st Round play.
SURPRISE: Jamea Jackson

...with a Hall of Fame roster of Americans being no-shows, 19-year old Jackson (#75) made her Fed Cup debut one she won't soon forget. Right out of the box, she upset Anna-Lena Groenefeld on Saturday to rock the German boat. On Sunday, she officially capsized it with an easy victory over Martina Muller to clinch the U.S.'s not-really-that-stunning (really, the Germans had only one competition-hearty player in ALG) advancement to the semis.
VETERAN: Jill Craybas
...of all the underrated "backup" American team members who've been putting up career-best results in recent weeks, 31-year old Craybas has probably been the least likely to succeed. But, with the absence of the Big Guns, she's put together a string of "last American standing" outings. Against Germany, likely inspired by Jackson's upset of ALG in the previous match, Craybas took out Julia Schruff to make it 2-0, solidifying an American advantage that was never relinquished.
FRESH FACES: Nicole Vaidisova & Aiko Nakamura
...Vaidisova's been a bit down on her luck in recent weeks, but she (at least temporarily) righted her ship with a 2-0 mark against Thailand in Group II play, with the first victory saving the Maidens from falling down 0-2 after Iveta Benesova's upset loss to Suchanan Viratprasert in the opening match. Meanwhile, 22-year old Nakamura was the youngest member of the Japanese team to face off against the Patty & Martina-less Swiss, but her 2-0 singles record provided most of the protein in the 4-1 victory.
DOWN: Amelie Mauresmo & Anna-Lena Groenefeld previous years, Mauresmo seemed to use Fed Cup to work out her frustrations over not having won a slam title. She was almost always great. This time, with a slam crown in hand, it was her loss to Schiavone that pretty well ended France's chances to reach a fourth straight FC final. As for ALG. Well, she put the German team on her back in '05 and carried it into Group I play almost single-handedly. A year later, with a team full of decent-but-unreliable big-match players, she was going to have to put up another spotless 3-0 record to get Germany past the underrated American team. Instead, she lost the opening match to the debuting Jackson (7-5 in the 3rd set), inspiring the band of U.S. Fed Cup neophytes. She went 2-0 in her remaining matches, but it was too little too late.


1.1st Round - USA/GER - Jackson d. Groenefeld
...6-2/3-6/7-5. The German boat sprung a leak right at the start, and no amount of bailing of water could save it from sinking. Guess no one will ever accuse Jackson of not knowing how to make an entrance, huh?
2.1st Round - ITA/FRA - Schiavone d. Mauresmo
...6-4/6-7/6-4. Schiavone softened up the French with this paralyzing shot to the midsection, then Flavia Pennetta put them away in the next match with a roundhouse win over Dechy.
3.1st Round - BEL/RUS - JHH d. Petrova
...6-7/6-4/6-3. In 2:39, Henin-Hardenne saved the Belgians from a dangerous 0-2 hole. Could this be a preview of the Queen Justine we'll see during the EuroClay season?
4.Zone Playoffs - ISR/SCG - Peer d. Ivanovic
..6-2/4-6/6-4. With Anna Smashnova getting knocked from pillar to post (she lost to the likes of Gojnea, Kanepi & Timotic), it was up to Peer to carry the Israelis to the Group II playoffs come July. Maybe her most important win was this one over Ivanovic -- Ana's only loss in four matches -- in Israel's 2-1 victory.
5.Zone Playoffs - AUS/IND - Stosur d. Mirza
...6-4/6-2. No Molik. No Dokic. But Sammy was around -- in singles -- to propel the Aussies into the Group II playoffs.
6.Zone Round Robin - SVK/NED - Hantuchova d. Krajicek
...4-6/7-6/6-2. Once upon a time, in 2002, Hantuchova led the Slovaks to a Fed Cup title. Without Wonder Girl the last two years, the Slovak FC fortunes have drifted away. But she has returned, and the long road back has begun. Slovakia next plays in the Group II playoffs, meaning a return trip to a FC final can't happen until 2008 at the earliest.
7.Group II - CRO/ARG - Mezak/Sprem d. Argeni/Diaz Oliva
...6-3/6-3. The only Group I or II tie to be decided by the final doubles match went to Mezak and Sprem (who ended with a hand in all three points in the 3-2 Croatian victory).

ITALY: Francesca Schiavone
SPAIN: Anabel Medina-Garrigues
USA: Jamea Jackson
BELGIUM: Justine Henin-Hardenne
JAPAN: Aiko Nakamura
CROATIA: Karolina Sprem
CZECH REPUBLIC: Nicole Vaidisova
Shahar Peer (Israel)
Daniela Hantuchova (Slovak Republic)

**FED CUP FINALS - 2000-05**
2000 USA def. Spain
2001 Belgium def. Russia
2002 Slovak Republic def. Spain
2003 France def. USA
2004 Russia def. France
2005 Russia def. France

All for now.


NEXT WEEK: April Awards


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