It’s the little sister of the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas. The Fed Cup is celebrating this year its half-century of existence. Fifty years of matches between the best female players in the world, and at least as many great and small stories to share. Here are ten of them, mixing an Evert that’s not Chris, Myskina’s killer eyes, Zidane’s head-butt, a very precocious child and a well preserved antique.
1- “Wightman Cup”, the pioneer
If the Federation Cup, which later became Fed Cup, appeared in 1963, the idea of a feminine team tournament was born in 1919, when the American Hazel Wightman presented a project inspired by the prestigious Davis Cup. But between the considerable financial constraints and the disinterest of the European stars, the Wightman Cup was officially created as an annual face-to-face between the United States and United Kingdom. The event will last until 1989, but ran out of steam with the Fed Cup competition and the decline of British tennis. And after 70 years, the battle ceased through lack of combatants...
2- When Billie-Jean King dropped her No 1 just before the tie
April 2002, and the match pitting the USA against Austria in Charlotte seemed to promise a fairly easy assignment for the home team, on paper that is. However, the team captain, Billie Jean King, has instituted some fairly draconian rules on the team-members – no coaches, no agents, no training outside of the group. Stefano Capriati, coach of his daughter, Jennifer, then world number 2, tries to break these rules on numerous occasions. The tension mounts and finally snaps just a few hours before the first match: the team captain and her on-court leader have a stormy confrontation at the end of a training session, and King ejects Capriati from the team. The team line-ups being already rubber-stamped, the USA loses its first point on Saturday by forfeit; then loses the match the next day. “I have no regrets” Capriati will later say, “I totally I believe I did the right thing. I mean, I have no regrets. I think anyone that should have regrets is their side. You know, they lost one of their best players.”
3- Miss Navratilova
Martina Navratilova has produced some of the exceptional performances in Fed Cup history: She has won the tournament four times for two different nations (Czechoslovakia in 1975, USA in 1982, ’86 and ’89). She is also the oldest ever competitor in a World Group-level match - competing in the 2003 edition at 47 years of age, some 8 years after her initial retirement. Having also won the tournament as team captain with the USA in 1997, Navratilova went on to win three out of four matches in doubles, the last coming in 2004 against Austria. Take that, Kimiko Date.
4- For Federer, read Hingis
Few of the greats are missing from the roll-call of Fed Cup champions, but perhaps the most obvious, and saddest, absentee is one Martina Hingis. Boasting the world number one, and a solid number two player in Patty Schnyder, Switzerland were well equipped to prevail in the late ‘90s. However, the differing characters of the players concerned, as well as a certain lack of fight, put paid to their chances of victory. Their best chance came in 1998, playing at home in the final against the Spanish team of Arantxa Sanchez and Conchita Martinez. Hingis won both her singles matches, but Schnyder, the world number eleven, would lose both of hers in tight contests. Shattered, the left-hander barely turned up in the doubles, losing 6-0, 6-2 with Hingis. The five-time Grand Slam winner would never play again in the Fed Cup.
5- A country on hold
July 2006, Indonesia is in the play-offs of the World Group F in Israel, at Ramat Ha-Sharon. But the political context is tense following the resumption of bombing in Gaza by Israel. The Indonesian state, the most populous Muslim state in the world and fervent supporter of the Palestinian rights, put in a request to the ITF for the match to be played on neutral ground, fearing for the security of its delegation. After the ITF’s refusal, Indonesia decided to boycott the match. Relegated, the country was then excluded from the competition the following year.
6- The Russian dolls have a catfight
In the mid-2000s, women's tennis was speaking Russian. While Anastasia Myskina, Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova all alternately won Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2004, the cohabitation within the national team is challenging. When Sharapova, established in Florida since childhood, made herself available a few weeks before the final against France, scheduled in Moscow, the most beautiful green eyes of the WTA Tour went on the attack. Myskina’s target: Yuri Sharapov, Maria's father, known for his provocations against his daughter's opponents: "His behavior with other players is unacceptable. It is simply vulgar. I don't want someone like him around me. If Maria joins our team, you won't see me in the Fed Cup. I don't want to be in a team with people who have no respect for me. Maria is more American than Russian. She speaks Russian with a horrible accent. “An excellent Fed Cup player, Myskina will have the last word, and after won her three games against the Blues, giving Russia its first Fed Cup title.
7- The hidden Evert
As a child she was described as being even more talented than Chris. However, Jeanne Evert played top-level tennis without ever really being able to step out of the shadow of her sister, older by three years. She reached the fourth round of the US Open in 1973 and ’78, but remains best known for her contribution to the USA Fed cup team’s progress in 1974, without Chris. That year she won all four of her singles matches en route to the final against Evonne Goolagong’s Australia. However, it was not to be. The US team lost the final and Jeanne Evert would never be picked for the Fed Cup again.
8- Meeting their Waterloo at Charleroi
Facing Italy in the 2006 final the Belgian team were overwhelming favourites – in Justine Hénin and Kim Clijsters they have the world’s number two and three, on home soil in Charleroi. The stage is set, right? Wrong. Bad luck stalks the Belgian camp. That summer, Clijsters falls victim to a wrist injury and ends her season. Hénin wins her two singles encounters against Pennetta and Schiavone, but the hard-fought nature of the latter match leaves its mark: Hénin suffers a recurrence of an injury to her right knee. To complete the misery, Kirsten Flipkens is also suffering from a thigh strain. With both of them injured, it’s Hénin who falls first in the decisive doubles rubber. Leading 2-0 in the third set, the reigning French Open champion retires, unable to continue. The Belgians experience their Waterloo.
9- Greek promise
Rarely has the tennis spotlight fallen on Greece, but it is a young Greek who holds the record as the youngest ever competitor in the Fed Cup. In 1977, five days short of her 13th birthday, Denise Panagopoulou takes to the court against Portugal, and not just to make up the numbers. Playing in the first match, she gets her team off to a great start, beating her opponent in three sets. Now working for the Greek Olympic Committee, she can rest easy – her record will never be beaten as the Fed Cup has instituted a minimum age of 14 for its competitors.
10- Zidane’s head-butt vs. Pennetta’s middle finger.
“At the time I didn’t see it and didn’t understand, but she told the umpire that she was a ‘b****’ and gave her the finger. She should have been immediately ejected from the court.” Italy has a marvelous recent record in Fed Cup, winning three titles with the duo of Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta. This day in February 2009, in Orléans, it’s the latter who draws the ire of Amélie Mauresmo. In the deciding game of the second set, the Italian contests a decision by the umpire which hands match-point to the Frenchwoman. After many minutes of arguing back-and-forth at the foot of the umpire’s chair, Pennetta receives a mere warning. Mauresmo would lose first the tie-break, and then the match. Disillusioned, team captain Nicolas Escudé finds some solace in sarcasm: “When Zidane head-butts someone, he’s sent off. In tennis, you can do whatever you want. It’s marvelous.”
by Guillaume Willecoq