Unpredictable road to “silver salad bowl”?

Belarusian tennis players beat Spain and will meet Australia in the Davis Cup quarterfinals
The Davis Cup history counts hundreds of years. Belarus entered this largest tennis tournament only recently, but however, managed to fight its way from the fourth qualification group to the world tennis elite, surprising fans with hot sensations.

Fans and specialists still talk about the defeat the Belarusian team inflicted on Russians and Argentineans — repeated finalists and winners of “the Silver Salad Bowl” — during Belarus’ first year in the world level group. Fans also remembered it when the Spanish team, Belarus’ rival in the World Group 2006 1st round, entered Minsk football manege in February.

There were enough coincidences. First, after 87 years of participating in the Davis Cup Spain had collected even more titles than Latin America. Second, both the teams felt uncomfortable in Minsk. No. The Belarusian land is hospitable enough. During his entire stay in Minsk captain of the Spanish team Emilio Sanchez stayed surprised at what he saw and thanked Belarusians for the hospitality. “I wish the weather was a tiny bit warmer and the court a little bit slower”, expressed common opinion team leader David Ferrer.

The sportsmen hid from the Belarusian winter, which had met the southerners with minus 20 degrees centigrade, in hotel rooms and left them only to exercise. The court adaptation looked worse than the weather. Used to slow soil courts, the Spanish team industriously “polished” Minsk’s Taraflex court and seemed close to reaching an understanding with the surface. “We are now adapted and will play a game of equals with Belarus”, said Tommy Robredo with self-assurance on the eve of the match. It turned out the Spanish team put on a brave face in vain…

Tennis is an individual competition. But the difference between personal and team competitions is huge and there is always space for paradox. Judging by statistics, the Belarusian team had no chances. Of course, the court influenced a lot, but the abyss between the sportsmen in various ranks of the association of professional tennis players ruled out the possibility of the native land helping the Belarusian team.

Just like during previous matches Maksim Mirnyi and Vladimir Volchkov had to defend their country’s honour. The leader of the Belarusian team, Maksim Mirnyi, ranked 32nd in the 52 Weeks. Vladimir Volchkov ranked 301st. Bench-warmers Alexander Buryi and Sergei Tarasevich seemed fit for sparring tennis only. The Spanish team’s prospects were quite different.

While compiling the team, Emilio Sanchez could choose even seven sportsmen from the world’s fifty best players and a dozen from the ATP’s 100 Best. But it is dry statistics. Life always has a space for a deed, including sport deeds. Vladimir Volchkov accomplished the deed in line with the scenario developed in recent years. “He played like he was not Vladimir Volchkov, but Roger Federer himself”, said third best player of the Spanish team Fernando Verdasco, amazed, watching Vladimir Volchkov scoring 2:0 against David Ferrer. Fernando was able to test abilities of the Belarusian sportsmen the next day when Spanish duet Verdasco-Lopez without particular problems made way for their rivals to the quarterfinals.

It was not the first time the Belarusian team entered the world’s top eight: two year before Belarus reached the semifinals where the USA stopped the advance with difficulty. Whether Mirnyi and Volchkov will be able to repeat the achievement remains to be seen. There are several factors influencing the situation. First, the rival. The Australian team is not an unbeatable one, but it has been in the world’s tennis elite for 25 years already. It is difficult to judge the present abilities of the team. While Belarus triumphed over Spain, Australia was modest enough to convince Switzerland to accept a tie break defeat. To tell you the truth, Australia did it on a foreign court and without its major star — Lleyton Hewitt. Whether world’s number 10 tennis player will play in the quarterfinals is difficult to predict, though the lot, which chose the green continent as the place for the match, already plays in favour of the Australian team. Australia can also benefit from its ability to choose the surface of the court. Soil is most likely to be the choice. Comments are needless. However, Belarusians are still optimistic. “How much is the Australian soil dangerous for our guys? Well, we can say that it is not the best option for them, but Maksim’s and Vladimir’s mastery enables them to play on either of the surfaces”, said Belarusian tennis team captain Dmitri Tatur. It should be mentioned Australia is more accustomed to hard court and does not like soil court very much. The choice was made not so as to suit Australia’s own needs, but to impede Belarus. Therefore, the future is changeable. Without Hewitt and Woodbridge brothers the Australian team looks not so intimidating. Out of all the possible rivals Mirnyi played against Lleyton Hewitt and Wayne Arthurs only. He beat the latter two times (in Australia on hard court and in England on grass) while the result of Mirnyi-Hewitt competitions speaks only in a slight favour of the latter — 2:3. As far as Volchkov is concerned, in 2004 he beat Peter Luczak on Sydney hard court and made his personal score with Australian team a draw — 1:1.

“We made a training schedule, planned several matches for our players for them to test their skills in conditions similar to those they will have in the Davis Cup quarterfinals”, assured Dmitri Tatur. No doubt, the Australian team will be ready for the competition as well. The match promises to be captivating and hardly anyone can dare undertake to predict its result.

by Dmitri Komarov
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