Sunday April 17 2011 will go down as a sad day after the French Fed Cup Team left the World Group for the first time ever.
It was bound to happen after so many years of having to go to the play-offs - but remains a huge disappointment.
I have had enough of France always putting principles before efficiency. Principles are important in sport and should be respected, but only if - at this level of the game - they lead to results.
If we were guided by a culture of winning, we would not be in this position now. And I have only heard excuses, outlined below, from the staff; in no way will this help us improve in the future.
Our team is not competitive, our players' rankings aren't good enough, and today's generation is weaker than the previous ones.
If this is the case, we must find solutions. If you believe that without the likes of Mauresmo, Pierce and Golovin then we have no chance, then of course the competition loses its interest. Let's not forget that Italy have won the Fed Cup three times since 2006 with no players in the top 10 for two of those. Even if Aravane Rezai is going through a tough time at the moment, she's still able to play at a high level for one weekend, like Jeremy Chardy did in the Davis Cup this season - and in Spain she played an excellent first match. As for Virginie Razzano, despite her private troubles she has remained a tough competitor whose ranking is not reflected appropriately. This low ranking is due to a long period out with an injury, but in Miami - the last event before the Fed Cup - she won against Alize Cornet then Kaia Kanepi in two sets before going one set up on Ivanovic and having to give up, injured again. Alize, totally lost last year, is getting better, hungry for victories and with a fighting spirit. She is still not at the same level as she was in her best season, but is competitive again. As for Julie Coin, not selected this time, she is an excellent double player with a great return and natural ability to go to the net.
Cornet was responsible for a lot of losses and was not, it seems, at the desired level.
This seems wrong to me: she was selected a lot so, if she wasn't good enough, she shouldn't have been picked. Or they should have coached her better. She has been made the scapegoat; trust is all-important in a team and the entire group has to stay united. The captain is there to instil confidence and should never dissociate himself from his players. If the team wins, he'll be valued, so he must also assume responsibility for the defeats.
The general level is very strong: the USA and Argentina, for example, are also not in the World Group.
This is the least convincing of the arguments. The USA lost with a team composed of Christina McHale, 90th in the world, and Melanie Oudin, 93rd. The Williams sisters have not played in the Fed Cup for years so this team will be in its rightful place in the second group. The same applies to Argentina: sure, Dulko is 55th in the world, but the second player is 175th and the third one 180th.
Analysis of the victorious countries
Since 2004 only two countries have won the Fed Cup: Italy three times and Russia four. Two teams with totally different strategies - but both very efficient. When I was coaching Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, I trained her during preparation week and was near Svetlana Kuznetsova in the team box during matches. In Russia, only one thing matters: the result. No ego in the wrong place, no principles in the wrong place, only efficiency. Their strength, of course, is that they have a lot of very good players - and the best ones make themselves available when needed. They are then welcomed by their 'usual' team, which helps in them not breaking their routine and proving competitive at once. They can also continue with their personal training for the season. That's why the best players make themselves available. In Italy, it is all about team spirit: on paper, they are weaker than the Russians, but they are a real team. Players get along, coaches too, and they all 'live' together all season long on the WTA Tour: they train together, they go for dinner together, they are friends and are always there to support each other. France is neither Russia nor Italy. Unlike Russia, the French team often have to play without its best players: two years ago, Bartoli, Rezai and Razzano were all missing at some point. Fortunately compromises were found so two of those three players could come at once; but those compromises were pretty light. Contrary to Italy, the preparation period is the only moment when the players are together: for the rest of the season, the coaches do not interact that much and each player lives her own career. They are a team for only a few weeks of the year, which impacts upon team spirit.
How can we become competitive again?
There are a lot of reasons to remain hopeful. Aravane is still young and able to play great tennis again if she can find a serious training environment. Cornet is still young too and seems to be getting better and better. Razzano is a huge fighter. And two other youngsters should come through soon: Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic.
We need the best players to compete
While waiting for this to happen, we must find a way to welcome Marion Bartoli into the team. The first duty of a captain is to gather the best players of the country; 'not at any price' seems to be the answer of the people in charge. So let's find a solution. When Aravane got to this level, which made her a key player on the team, we talked a lot about it and she agreed to give up on all her wishes. If she hadn't done this, she wouldn't have played in the team. But not all players think like Aravane. And I can tell you that if this French system was applied in Russia then a lot of top players would refuse to play. Concerning Marion, if her father cannot be among the team, he could be allowed close to it and be allowed to take his daughter's training. It would help France find a solid level of performance and not be humiliating for anyone.
We need an efficient doubles team
One of the weak points of this team is the doubles - but nobody talks about it. When Aravane lost her singles match on Sunday, the team still had a chance to win, but I knew the game was really over. The Spanish doubles side was indeed way too strong for us. It is mandatory now to think about building the best possible pairing and to make them play together all year long; it's as if we know we're going to lose these matches in advance.
We need a true team spirit
You cannot create team spirit in a week of training; it has to be built all year long. So it's very important that the Fed Cup captain and the team coaches travel for at least half of the year with the WTA Tour. It would help to understand how each player is working with her coach and build relationships between players, coaches and the Fed Cup staff.
We must be aware of our opponents
By travelling on the Tour, the Fed Cup staff will better know opponents - each player's weapons and flaws, gameplan and the strategy needed to beat them. If you don't know the opponent, you are fighting in the fog.
It is one thing to say our girls aren't good enough at the moment, but another to use that to explain the latest poor results. It is also an easy answer which does not lead to problem-solving and future improvement. Let's work on it!