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Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Updated: April 24, 3:06 PM ET
Massacre In The Making

Once upon a time in a land not so far away, there was a women's team competition called the Wightman Cup -- an annual seven-match contest between the United States and Great Britain, established in 1923. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The two countries split the first eight meetings 4-4, usually in a close contest.

The U.S. then went on to win 43 of the next 49 ties. In 1990, after 11 consecutive U.S. victories and no potential change in sight, the competition was abandoned.

The Americans will get a little taste of what all those hapless British teams used to experience this weekend when they head to Russia for the Fed Cup semifinals. It's a meeting between the two strongest countries in women's tennis, but while the Russians are fielding a very respectable squad, the Americans have not a single representative in the top 100.

Vania King, ranked 115, is the leading singles player, followed by 145-ranked Ashe Rolle. The team does have one half of the top-ranked doubles team in Liezel Huber, thanks to the native South African's American citizenship kicking in last year. Rounding out the team is 18-year-old Madison Brengle, ranked 249.

It's a stunningly threadbare list, given that a full-strength lineup would contain Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport. All credit to the players who are willing to make the trip, but this isn't even a B-team or a C-team. It's a D-team

The Russians, meanwhile, have world No.4 Svetlana Kuznetsova, No. 7 Anna Chakvetadze, No. 17 Dinara Safina and No. 44 Elena Vesnina, and possibly No. 14 Vera Zvonareva on call. It's a massacre in the making.

But even they're missing their top player in Maria Sharapova, plus one or two high-ranked players like Elena Dementieva who may not have been called up.

The two whose absence is particularly acute are Serena Williams and Sharapova. They have been the strongest players of the year so far, winning three tournaments each and recording dominant wins over world No. 1 Justine Henin.

With Williams playing for the U.S. and Sharapova for her native Russia, the Fed Cup contest would have been a compelling one, especially since the two faced off in a three-set battle at Charleston last week. And this is one tie they should have showed up for.

Look, we know it's easy to make endless demands of the players. Play both Indian Wells and Miami, then the green clay events, Fed Cup, European clay, Wimbledon, show up for a good number of the U.S. Open Series events, fly over to Beijing for the Olympics and then fly back for the U.S. Open.

If they do attempt everything, then it's easy to criticize them for the tired performances they inevitably give.

So yes, Williams and Sharapova have reasons not to want to make the trip to Moscow, given that they're coming off a relatively busy schedule over the past month and a half and it happens to be Sharapova's 21st birthday this week.

But there's still a reason to expect both to be playing this weekend, and that reason is the Olympics.

By every indication, they'll both be happily competing in Beijing this August. Yet Olympic eligibility theoretically has Fed Cup strings attached to it -- players need to have made themselves available for one Fed Cup tie over the past two years, plus one other tie in the past four years.

It's not an onerous burden. And it's not unreasonable to ask Olympic hopefuls to show some interest in national competition before taking their place in the opening ceremonies. Neither Williams nor Sharapova, however, will meet even those minimal criteria. Williams has played one tie in the last five years, and it wasn't till two months ago that Sharapova played her first and only tie to date. Sure, Sharapova tried to mitigate her injury-related absence in last year's final by rooting from the sidelines, and Williams has missed plenty of time with her own injuries over the last few years.

But letting it slide cheapens their presence at the Olympics, especially given that there are other players who are equally keen to take part in the Games and did put in their Fed Cup dues.

Now for something completely different. There's been talk about which male players are and aren't at Monte Carlo this week, but there's a much more vital presence that's hasn't shown up -- the ball.

Or at least, that's what it looks like on TV. It's there for the start of the player's service toss but then shows up only for brief flashes before helpfully reappearing at the end of the rally.

It's been this way for years. Forget all the fiddling with the draw format, the on-screen statistics and the branding. Shouldn't basic visibility to be priority No. 1?