Island tennis fans got the exciting news this week that Bayamon will play host to Group II Davis Cup play with Puerto Rico facing off against Bahamas Feb. 6-8. The tie is set for Bayamons Ruben Rodriguez Coliseum, making this the first time in 20 years an elite tournament (not exhibition) is played indoors in Puerto Rico, according to veteran player Juan Oscar Rios.
Puerto Rico has only hosted its own Davis Cup action once before, back in 1997 at San Juans Parque Central.
Organizing Committee president Carlos Pesquera thinks being the host country could give Puerto Rico the impetus to finally move up to Group I with the big boys.
Puerto Rico has never made it higher than Group II since beginning Davis Cup play in 1992. The islands best finish was as a finalist in Group II back in 1993 versus Haiti. That team featured Juan Oscar Rios, Stephen Diaz and Jorge "Sharky" Gonzalez with University of Georgia coach Manolito Diaz as captain and Miguel Nido as its star.
This time around Pesquera is optimistic about Group I.
Puerto Ricos men have ridden a veritable Davis Cup rollercoaster in 11 years (the team has risen and fallen from Group IV and back up to Group II seven times in that span), but were encouraged last year after gaining Group II status once again.
"Were not the favorites but we have a good chance," said Gabriel Montilla, who along with Notre Dame standout Luis Haddock, will be the teams top two singles players. "Its just not going to be easy."
Montilla has always risen to the challenge when wearing his countrys uniform and if his play in 2003 was any indication, theres room to move up.
Montilla had one of the biggest games of his tennis career last year during Puerto Ricos match versus Bolivia in the Group III round robin playoffs. The come-from-behind victory cinched Group II status and Montilla said its a match hes not likely to ever forget.
"It was against Bolivias Javier Taborga [who is 17-10 in Davis Cup action and has played in 18 career ties]," said Montilla. "He won the first set, 7-6 and he was up 5-4 and it was his serve. He had three match points. But then I nailed a serve and broke his and ended up winning the second set 7-5 and the third, 6-4. It was the most emotional match of my career because winning it meant we moved up to Group II."
Montilla, a former University of Indiana player who sees action on the satellite tour, said he likes Puerto Ricos chances for Group I in 2004. Montilla is the local player with the most Davis Cup experience. He has the most total wins (31-3) of any Puerto Rican player and the most ties played (22). His records are 19-1 in singles and 12-2 in doubles.
Puerto Rico goes up against the Bahamas while Mexico takes on Jamaica in the first-round action of Group II Americas Feb. 6-8. On the other side of the draw, Cuba takes on the Dominican Republic while Haiti plays Uruguay. The winners of each tie advance to the second round April 9-11 while the winners of that tie advance to the final Sept. 24-26. The April 9-11 tie will also be played in BayamÛn.
Eight players have been selected for review by co-captains Kelvin Rivera and Junior Gonzalez. In addition to Montilla and Haddock, the list includes Gilberto Alvarez, Ricardo Gonzalez, Jan Polhamus, Jorge Rangel and Francisco Suro, all relatively young players with as yet untapped potential.
The eighth player invited to practices is 37-year-old veteran Juan Oscar Rios, who played in Puerto Ricos Davis Cup debut and has enjoyed a career that spans three decades. He was Puerto Rico's singles champ in 1999.
Rios, currently the director of tennis at the Wyndham El Conquistador resort in Fajardo, was suspended from Davis Cup play after 1993 for his temperamental style of play and never invited back, despite his solid play for most of the rest of the decade.
Rios represented Puerto Rico in Barcelona 1992 and was once ranked among the top 200 players in the world.
Montilla said he thought Rios experience could help the team.
"I think he should be considered because hes such a veteran and that would help us," said Montilla via telephone on Wednesday from Florida. "I know some of the junior players he coaches and theyve told me that he can still play sets very competitively."
Against Bahamas, Montilla was already sizing up the competition.
"They have players ranked in the top 30 in the world in doubles. I doubt theyll play here but they have two or three players who are pretty good," said Montilla.
Bahamas dropped down to Group II in 2003 after losing in the first round to Peru (0-5) and then losing in the final to Venezuela (0-4). The teams top player, Mark Knowles, has combined a 39-32 total wins record in his 13 years of Davis Cup play.
Cuban volleyball player defects
Cuban volleyball player Yosleider Cala is expected to formally ask for asylum in the United States this week after defecting in San Juan shortly after the close of the NORCECA Olympic Volleyball Qualifying tournament held Jan. 4-10 in Caguas, Puerto Rico.
Cala, was a member of Cubas young volleyball team that finished second and out of the qualifying in the final game. Cuba lost in five sets to the United States for the sole Olympic berth.
The 6-6 outside hitter is the fourth elite Cuban athlete to defect in the past four months. Two gymnasts defected during the World championships of their sport in September in Anaheim, Calif., and a swimmer left the Cuban delegation during the Pan Am Games in the Dominican Republic in August.
Three years ago, six of Cubas top volleyball players defectd in Belgium during an invitational tournament.