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King Won Battle, Lost War

TENNIS LISA DILLMAN

April 30, 2002|LISA DILLMAN

U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe put out the polite word that personal coaches would not be allowed at all of the practices at Oklahoma City and Houston in the first two rounds of Davis Cup earlier this year. Pete Sampras, who has won more Grand Slam titles than any other male player, went along with the program, as did star-in-the-making Andy Roddick.

John McEnroe, Patrick's older brother, had another approach during his short Davis Cup tenure. He didn't want to shake the comfort zone of the top players, and so Brad Gilbert, who was then coaching Andre Agassi, was a ubiquitous figure.

Two brothers, two styles.

Fed Cup captain Billie Jean King adopted Patrick's philosophy in an attempt to foment team unity in Charlotte, N.C., leading up to the first round against Austria.

Oh, it worked all right.

The team unified ... against Jennifer Capriati.

King kicked Capriati off the squad on Friday for not agreeing to comply with team rules. Capriati did not actually break the rules, as has been widely reported. She was dismissed before she had a personal practice session with her coach and hitting partner, a fine point, but an important one.

It would be easy to characterize Capriati as a spoiled star who simply needs to grow up. How crucial is one extra practice when your reputation, as well as future Olympic participation, are on the line? (Olympic eligibility is tied to Fed Cup appearances.) If Monica Seles and the others could survive a few days under this directive, why not Capriati?

It also would not be hard to criticize King for a lack of flexibility. Why not let the players work out with their personal coaches after a formal team practice? If Michael Jordan wanted to have an extra practice during the 1992 Olympics, it's unlikely the coaches would have protested.

But neither depiction quite tells the whole story.

Capriati apparently was caught in the middle of a dispute between her father and coach, Stefano, and King. Stefano tried to attend practice on Tuesday and was told it was a closed session.

The tension between the Capriati entourage and King escalated. Other players became aware of it and the controversy turned into a distraction. It's just a guess, but King might have reacted differently Friday if there hadn't been the earlier situation with Stefano. And maybe Capriati wouldn't have pushed the issue if the coach in question had been someone other than her father.

Once Capriati was kicked off the team, the forming of alliances among the remaining team members was fascinating. Lisa Raymond, once involved in a bitter dispute with King about being bypassed for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, came down squarely on the side of the captain.

So did Meghann Shaughnessy, who used to blast the USTA for its lack of financial support. Seles, who never likes to get in the middle of these things, also took a shot at Capriati, noting the team rules were known in advance.

Still, almost no one would have anticipated the outcome in Charlotte. After the first day of competition, Saturday, Austria led, 2-0. Seles lost to lefty Barbara Schwartz in straight stets, and because Capriati had been dismissed after the draw, the U.S. forfeited her singles match.

Schwartz clinched the match for Austria on Sunday, beating Shaughnessy, 4-6, 7-6 (7), 9-7, fighting off one match point. It was not the first time Schwartz delivered a shock result on a clay court. In 1999, as a qualifier, she defeated Venus Williams in the fourth round at the French Open.

USTA officials, who fully backed King, seemed almost relieved the controversial event was over. USTA President Merv Heller, on his way to the airport on Sunday, spoke for himself and probably everyone else. He was doing an interview about the USTA's new partnership with the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), but naturally, talk turned to the Fed Cup debacle.

"It's unfortunate," he said. "There were no winners."

Well, almost. There was Schwartz. The oft-injured player was hailed as a heroine in her country. One Austrian paper, Kronen Zeitung, was thrilled by her performance, writing: "Schwartz perfected the tennis fairy tale. Seven defeats in seven Fed Cup duels with the U.S.! Austria traveled to America as a total outsider--on Tuesday the girls return home as triumphant winners. The victory of the century has one name: Babsi Schwartz!"

Tennis fairy tale? Didn't we once write those words about Capriati?

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