Kournikova back as Fed Cup showcases new format

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The Independent Online

For the first time in three years, Anna Kournikova is playing for her native Russia in the Fed Cup team tennis event.

Kournikova's return to the Russian fold has grabbed the most attention as a new-look Fed Cup gets underway on Thursday at three sites across Europe.

The 18-year-old Kournikova, whose glamorous looks have made her the most photographed player in women's tennis, has been criticised in Russia for skipping previous Fed Cup matches. She last played for Russia in 1997 against Belarus.

"I've always wanted to play for my country," Kournikova insisted today in Moscow. "I just happened to have very big injuries over the past two years. I had a stress fracture of the right foot last year. In '98 I had a torn ligament of my right thumb when I didn't play Wimbledon. So it's not a huge decision for me this year because I knew I was going to play."

Kournikova, who has a 2-2 Fed Cup record in singles and 9-0 in doubles, has reportedly antagonised Russians by practicing separately from her teammates in Moscow this week. She rejected suggestions that she might be left on the bench.

"Of course, I'm No 1," she said. "It's out of the question."

The Russian federation later announced that Anna Kournikova would be the team's No 1 singles player, with Elena Likhovtseva as No 2. Elena Dementieva and Lina Krasnorutskaya are the likely doubles team.

Under the new Fed Cup format, 12 World Group teams are competing in three round-robin groups Thursday through Sunday in Moscow; Bari, Italy, and Bratislava, Slovakia.

The defending champion United States received a bye. The three winners of this weekend's group play will join the Americans in the semi-final and final round on November 22-26, to be contested at an undetermined venue in the United States.

Joining Russia in Group C in Moscow are Australia, Belgium and France.

Group A in Bari has Italy, Croatia, Germany, Spain and Italy plays the other in matches consisting of two singles and one doubles. If two teams are tied atop the group after play on Sunday, head-to-head records will serve as the tiebreaker. If three teams are tied, the tiebreakers will be: most matches won; highest percentage of sets won; highest percentage of games won.

The Moscow group should be the most interesting, with all four teams featuring young and older talent. Australia will rely on 17-year-old Jelena Dokic, who reached the Wimbledon quarter-finals a year ago but has struggled since. Belgium also has an upcoming star in 16-year-old Kim Clijsters, who reached the fourth round of Wimbledon in '99.

France, the '97 champion, seems to have the most depth with veterans Nathalie Tauziat, Julie Halard Decugis and Sandrine Testud. Amelie Maursemo, the '99 Australian Open runner-up, withdrew this week with an injury, and Mary Pierce is not playing.

In Bari, five-time champion Spain is led by veteran clay specialists Conchita Martinez and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. Italy has Silvia Farina and Rita Grande, while Croatia features Silvija Talaja and Iva Majoli, and Germany has Anke Huber.

The Bratislava group looks wide open and lacks a star player. Slovakia is led by Karina Habsudova, Austria by Barbara Schett, the Czechs by Denisa Chladkova, and Switzerland by Patty Schnyder.

Fed Cup At A Glance

All Times GMT

WORLD GROUP

First Round (Group winners advance)

Group A (in Bari, Italy)

Thursday, April 27 Croatia vs. Germany, 0900 Italy vs. Spain, 1600

Friday, April 28 Croatia vs. Spain, 1200

Saturday, April 29 Italy vs. Croatia, 0900 Spain vs. Germany, 1600

Sunday, April 30 Italy vs. Germany, 1200

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Group B (in Bratislava, Slovakia)

Thursday, April 27 Czech Republic vs. Austria, 0900 Slovakia vs. Switzerland, 1500

Friday, April 28 Czech Republic vs. Switzerland, 1300

Saturday, April 29 Slovakia vs. Czech Republic, 0900 Switzerland vs. Austria, 1500

Sunday, April 30 Slovakia vs. Austria, 1200

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Group C (in Moscow)

Thursday, April 27 Australia vs. Belgium, 0600 Russia vs. France, 1200

Friday, April 28 Australia vs France, 1000

Saturday, April 29 Russia vs. Australia, 0600 France vs. Belgium, 1200

Sunday, April 30 Russia vs. Belgium, 0900

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FINALS (in United States)

Wednesday, November 22 to Sunday, November 26 United States, Group A winner, Group B winner, Group C winner

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