I watch a lot of tennis. A lot. Probably an unhealthy amount. And on an intellectual level I know that the weeks and months and years are going by, and that players are getting older and getting to the end of their careers and new players are starting their careers. But honestly, I don’t usually notice it. It just doesn’t seem that obvious when you watch tennis every single day. The top 10 rarely changes. From week to week the changes are minor, hardly noteworthy. Just like it’s harder to notice the aging of your significant older, the growth of a tree in your front yard, or the weight change of your best friend, it’s tough to really comprehend that things in tennis are different until something significant happens.
Like, for instance, Fed Cup. Looking at the World Group Quarterfinal line-up for this weekend, I couldn’t help but be a bit alarmed. The future it now, you guys. The future is now. Kind of. The past and present are mixed in there too. It’s a bit confusing, I know. But trust me, things are different.
The United States vs. Italy tie is where things are most drastically different. Just two years and three months ago these two teams met in the Fed Cup final. Of the five players who competed in live rubbers on that day (Schiavone, Pennetta, Vandeweghe, Mattek-Sands, Oudin), only Melanie Oudin is active in this rubber, and that’s only because the Williams sisters are injured again and Sloane Stephens pulled out last minute. Unless Jamie Hampton’s back acts up, she’s unlikely to see any playing time. What I’m saying is that just two years ago the concept that an Italy-USA tie would feature Sara Errani, Roberta Vinci, Varvara Lepchenko, and Jamie Hampton as the primary singles players would have committed you to a mental institution.
But a lot can happen in a couple of years. And it’s both exhilarating, terrifying, and liberating to realize this.
This year in Fed Cup World Group play, which only features eight teams, you’ll see a lot of surprising things. Kimiko Date-Krumm and Ayumi Morita, twenty years apart in age (22 and 42) will play singles for Japan. Maria Kirilenko will be the top singles player for Russia. Samantha Stosur will attempt not to choke things away for Australia. (Okay, so maybe that’s the same.)
Fed Cup is an interesting animal, because it’s both significant and completely irrelevant at the same time. Perhaps because of the built-in subconscious mentality that on their own without any context, female team sports are not as valuable as male team sports, or just because the Fed Cup and Davis Cup formats are broken and out-dated, it doesn’t seem to actually have a huge impact on the narratives of our sport. (I recognize this could be American bias, because the Williams sisters rarely play and therefore it is deemed culturally invisible and negligible even though the team miraculously reached back-to-back finals in 2009 and 2010.) Anyway, what I guess I’m saying, is that it’s one of those things that matters only if you want it to matter. Roger Federer might have some people muttering under his breath that he should want to add a Davis Cup title to his resume, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone saying that about the top female players. They play when they can. They withdraw when it’s beneficial for them. Life moves on.
But I must say, I love Fed Cup. We have a sport and a universe that idolizes and imagines bromance and yet glorifies and instigates catfights. Women aren’t supposed to get along. Especially pro tennis women. They just shriek and call false medical timeouts and hate each other. But here, in the middle of a fiercely competitive solo sport, we have a team competition. One that makes Serena Williams and Jamie Hampton friends. One that makes this possible:
Fed Cup matters, even if only to niche groups. It’s important to show the solidarity of sisterhood. It’s important for the female players to have a team competition that rivals the Davis Cup and that does draw crowds. (I swear, it does. Most of the time. Regularly more than Jacksonville, at least.) It’s also significant as a barometer of the changing of the tides. Because just glancing at top 10 rankings doesn’t tell the whole story. The Fed Cup draws paint a broad picture of where tennis and individual players are at that time. As much as tennis is an international sport without party lines, sometimes it’s just as nice to be able to break things down into quantifiable and comprehensible subset. This is where patriotism comes in. Not only does it give the competitors a home base, but it gives fans an attachment to the sport that goes deeper than the ever-changing-and-fickle individual.
This weekend in Fed Cup World Group play we’ll see Dominika Cibulkova try and redefine her career. We’ll see Bojana Jovanovski try and forge a legacy and step out beyond the shadows of Jankovic and Ivanovic. We’ll see underdogs such as Jamie Hampton and Ayumi Morita try and seize the day and shock the tennis world. And we’ll see veterans such as Samantha Stosur, Daniela Hantuchova, and, if it comes down to it, Leizel Huber, shake off the pressure of expectations and seize a golden moment of their careers. Fed Cup rarely makes careers. But, in the initial stages, it can break them.
This weekend likely won’t be remembered vividly by the tennis world at large. But that doesn’t mean it’s not significant, both as a snapshot of where tennis is right now, and for the women who are truly embracing the benefits of team competition.
My predictions for this weekend: Czech Republic, Italy, Russia, and Slovak Republic.
These aren’t radical choices if compared to a decade before, but the individual players are drastically variant. Because things keep changing, on the court and off. We’re in the future now. And I’m excited.