- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2003

When career underachiever Mark Philippoussis declined to play for Australia’s Davis Cup squad a few years ago, he was ostracized by the Aussie tennis community.

When top-ranked Serena Williams skipped out on this weekend’s Fed Cup quarterfinal between the United States and Italy to attend the ESPYs and fulfill an — ahem — acting commitment, she was serenaded on national television by Jaime Foxx.

Therein, of course, lies the difference between America and the rest of the world when it comes to international team tennis competitions. Not to mention the primary reason the United States-Italy contest at William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center was severely devoid of starpower.

Of the top 10 players in women’s tennis, five are Americans. But only one of them, No.8 Chanda Rubin, was available to join Meghann Shaughnessy and Lisa Raymond on Team USA.

The result? A solid-if-unspectacular squad that entered the weekend in the manner of the Marines going to Iraq all by themselves. Sure, they can probably get the job done. But why leave the rest of your toys at home?

Granted, bad luck played a part in depleting captain Billie Jean King’s roster. Venus Williams, pegged to lead the Americans, aggravated a stomach injury at Wimbledon and may miss most of the summer hard-court season. Ditto for Fed Cup veteran Monica Seles, who withdrew from the team with a nagging foot injury.

That said, there’s no reason top guns Serena, No. 5 Lindsay Davenport and No. 7 Jennifer Capriati couldn’t have been a part of the squad. Well, make that no good reason.

Capriati was booted off the Fed Cup team last year following an ugly public row with King. Capriati wanted to have her father and coach, Stefano, with her during team practices. King refused, citing team rules.

For her part, Davenport vacillated about being a part of the squad, then wanted to join the team late because her mother was scheduled to undergo knee surgery. Serena, meanwhile, had a made-for-television award to pick up and also would not have been able to join the team for an entire week.

King, who is nothing if not principled, left both players off the roster, noting that Fed Cup traditionally requires a full week’s commitment.

In each case, however, both King and the players could have compromised — as opposed to compromising the strength of Team USA. After all, if sports teaches us anything, it’s that egos are massageable. Schedules can be adjusted. Differences are made for papering over.

To put it another way: Does anyone doubt that Serena could hop on a red eye from Los Angeles, show up on Saturday morning, play in her revealing ESPY gown — complete with high heels — and still spank Italy’s Francesca Schiavone in straight sets?

Problem is, neither King nor the players had any reason to go along. Let alone get along. And frankly, it’s hard to blame them, given that the American public views both Fed Cup and Davis Cup with general indifference.

Sure, American fans like homegrown winners. But in the case of tennis, they care about the Grand Slams and the Olympics. And that’s about it.

Consider: When USA basketball failed to win a gold medal at the 1988 Olympics, the response was swift. And merciless. In came the Dream Team. Out went Angola. With an elbow to the throat, just for good measure.

By contrast, where was the outcry when Andre Agassi refused to play Davis Cup for a number of years? Just because he couldn’t bring his personal trainer along with him? And where was the wailing and gnashing of teeth when John McEnroe captained Team USA to a memorably embarrassing defeat in Spain?

Heck, where were the fans for yesterday’s deciding Fed Cup matches, which were far from sold out? For that matter, why wasn’t the quarterfinal on ESPN? Or Comcast? Or even local television?

Fact is, the United States won’t consistently field its best-possible squad until there’s some semblance of pressure to do so. Discussing her Fed Cup absence at Wimbledon, Davenport indirectly said as much.

“From what I’ve been told, you don’t have to play Fed Cup to play the Olympics,” she said. “So there’s — you know — concentrate on other things now.”

The bottom line? National pride is a great source of motivation. But national shame is a whole lot greater.

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