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Steve Flink: Fed Cup Reflections

1/28/2008 7:52:00 PM

by Steve Flink

There they were, performing out on the hard courts in La Jolla, California, representing their countries in the opening round of Fed Cup. This was less than a week after the conclusion of the Australian Open, and the United States was taking on Germany. With Lindsay Davenport opening the proceedings against Sabine Lisicki-- an 18-year-old ranked No. 130 in the world--- it seemed almost certain that the Americans would be off and running toward a triumph in the best of five match battle of nations. Davenport, who had not lost a Fed Cup singles or doubles match since 1994, was the clear favorite to win this match. The 31-year-old former world No. 1 was competing on her favorite surface in her home state in front of a large number of fans and friends.

And yet, she did not prevail. Lisicki did not seem the least bit intimidated by the accomplished Davenport. Her confidence and poise were evident from the outset. To be sure, she had moments of anxiety, recognizing the size of her challenge against such an experienced opponent. But the tension never seemed to last long. Lisicki fully exploited her remarkable flat forehand. She threw in a cluster of drop shots, getting carried away with that shot at times but catching Davenport off guard frequently with a tactic that was essentially working. And although her serve was streaky--- and her second serve unstable-she still served 14 aces to more than offset her 11 double faults. To be sure, Lisicki, setting the tone, controlling the majority of the points, keeping Davenport off balance and ill at ease, played a terrific match, and thoroughly deserved her 6-1, 7-5 triumph.

But what happened to Davenport. She had, after all, won three of the five tournaments she had played since her return from the birth of her first child. And Davenport had made what appeared to be a seamless return back to the game she has played so commandingly for so long. Why was she so beaten in straight sets, and how did she squander a 5-2 second set lead? Had she closed out that set, her game would inevitably have started clicking on all fronts in a third set and the American would have almost certainly have come from behind for a victory.

She never gave herself that chance, which was uncharacteristic. On her way to 5-2 in that second set, Davenport conceded only four points in four service games. She was finding the corners effectively with her first serve, finding her range off the ground, finding the inner belief that had been missing. But then Lisicki went back to work and salvaged the set with a spirited run of five consecutive games. She served her tenth double fault of the contest to go down set point in the eighth game, but erased it with an ace and held on for 3-5. She broke an unsettled Davenport in the following game, but was back in jeopardy again in the tenth game. Serving to save the set for the second time at 4-5, Lisicki fell behind set point again, but blasted a two-handed backhand crosscourt that Davenport had no way to handle.

So now it was 5-5. Davenport's momentum was gone, and her spirits were sinking. Lisicki sensed she could finish off the match, and did just that. The German broke for 6-5, and then served out the match, sealing the victory on her third match point. It was a major Fed Cup upset, and surely a blow to the pride of Davenport. Ashley Harkleroad, making her Fed Cup debut, was admirable in bringing the Americans back to 1-1. She took apart Tatjana Malek in straight sets. Rain washed out play completely the next day, but with the sun shining brightly again on Monday, Davenport was in a comfort zone again, routing Julia Goerges 6-1, 6-2. Harkleroad, playing another smart and largely unerring match, clinched the triumph for the U.S. with a 6-4,7-5 win over Lisicki. And so the opening day woes of Davenport were easily forgotten as the U.S. set up a meeting with the Russians in Moscow. To her credit, Sharapova, who would have been forgiven for skipping Fed Cup since she had played seven matches in capturing the Australian Open, was unwilling to walk away. She won her two matches easily against Israel.

In any event, Davenport's defeat on opening day deserves more reflection. Irrefutably, she has made a strong and impressive comeback after giving up plans for retirement. Her overall standard has been a tribute to her excellent mechanics. Her stroke production remains formidable. The purity of her shots is an enduring strong suit. And her conditioning is first rate. In some ways, it is as if she never left the game.

On the other hand, the Lisicki loss is evidence that her bad days may become more frequent. The consistency she displayed up until the Australian Open might be impossible for Davenport to sustain. She wisely started out competing in weaker fields after coming back from motherhood. It is too early to know if Davenport will be increasingly vulnerable against players who are undaunted about facing her. It is hard to tell at this point whether Davenport can compete again as successfully as she once did against the best players in the world.

My guess is that she will not. But I would be more than happy if she would prove me absolutely wrong over the course of this season, because I always enjoy watching her compete at the height of her powers.

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