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Puerto Rico One Victory Away From Fed Cup World Group

By Gabrielle Paese

April 29, 2005
Copyright © 2005 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Puerto Rico’s three-woman Fed Cup team won every single match last week en route to defeating Canada in the final and taking the Americas Zone Group I Fed Cup tournament on Carrasco tennis club’s red clay in Montevideo, Uruguay.

The tournament victory was historic for Puerto Rico, marking the first time the women have won Group I play.Winning the tournament also opens a window for the team to qualify for the big-time, World Group play.

Kristina Brandi, currently ranked 93rd, teamed up with 142nd-ranked Vilmarie Castellvi and Jessica Roland to pace Puerto Rico. In the final versus Canada, Castellvi beat top Canadian junior Aleksandra Wozniak (5-7, 6-4, 11-9) while Brandi defeated Marie-Eve Pelletier (6-4, 3-6, 8-6).

With the victory, Puerto Rico advances to a July 9-10 World Group playoff. Only the winner of that match moves up.

"In terms of tennis for Puerto Rico, this is our biggest accomplishment yet," said team captain Juan Carlos Escudero in reference to Puerto Rico’s international performance since its entry into Davis and Fed Cup play in 1992.

On May 3, the International Tennis Federation will hold a draw to determine the matchups for the World Cup playoffs. Puerto Rico is in a pool of Group I winners that also includes Bulgaria, Slovenia and China. Each of those four teams will face a rival from World Group losers Slovak Republic, Thailand, Japan and Indonesia.

Brandi said she is already familiar with some of the potential rivals. Slovak Republic’s team is led by 61st ranked Martina Sucha while Thailand’s top player is Tamarine Tanasugarn, ranked 68th. Japan’s Akiko Morigami is ranked 74th.

"Indonesia is the lowest ranked, but there’s not one particular team you would prefer to play against," said Brandi. "Some of the players are ranked lower but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be easy to beat. Hopefully, we’ll play the match in Puerto Rico. That would give us a definite advantage."

Brandi heads to Europe next week to prepare for the French Open and Wimbledon, where she also hopes to boost her ranking back up into the top 50. Brandi closed out 2004 in 47th place, a big jump from where she started her comeback three years ago after being derailed with a wrist injury. In 2003 Brandi won seven USTA Satellite Tour singles titles in the course of six months, earning USTA Player of the Month honors. She also won a silver and bronze medal (doubles and singles) at the 2003 Pan Am Games. In 2004, she represented Puerto Rico in the Athens Games, making it to the second round before bowing to Anastasia Myskina, of Russia.

She maintained her top 50 ranking throughout 2004, moving up from the 70s to the 50s with the Hobart semifinal, the third of her WTA career.

Puerto Rico Islanders open 2005 season versus Montreal Impact

Last year, I predicted they wouldn’t make it through one season, but thankfully I was wrong. The Puerto Rico Islanders survived a woeful 5-17-6 record in 2004, but are optimistic about their chances for a successful 2005 season. They open this weekend with two matches at Bayamon’s Juan Ramon Loubriel Stadium versus the United Soccer League’s A-division champions, the Montreal Impact.

"We have to win here because we have to show that we are worthy," said Islanders coach Hugo Maradona, younger brother of Argentinean soccer legend, Diego. "We’ve worked hard and we’re in excellent shape. Now the only thing left to do is to work on the mental aspect and convince the players that they can win at this level."

A revamped squad takes to the field for Friday’s first home game.

Maradona has added defenseman Marco Velez, rookie goalkeeper Dan Kennedy as well as Corey Woolfolk, Isaias Bardales, Juan Pablo Irrera, Michael Mourelo and Alejandro Gonzalez to a lineup that already features Brazilians Mauricio Salles and Edivaldo "Juninho" DaSilva, Gores, Luis Fernando Zuleta, Isaac Nieves, Johanes Maliza, Alexis Rivera and Mime Ortiz.

Velez played for the past two seasons with the Seattle Sounders. Bardales played last season with the San Diego Gauchos and from 2001-2003 saw action with the Major Soccer League’s Los Angeles Galaxy. Woolfolk was the leading scorer for the Rochester Rhinos last season.

The Islanders selected McAthy, a former Cape Cod Crusader and Orange County Blue Star forward out of University of California-Santa Barbara in the 2005 USL first division college draft, of which Puerto Rico had the first pick by virtue of finishing last in 2004.

Team captain Chris Gores holds out hope that a winning season is on the horizon.

"Contrary to last year, we actually had a preseason this year. Last year it was a new franchise and there wasn’t a lot of time to prepare," said Gores, 27. "This season, we have a few new players with some experience and I think Hugo being here from the beginning has made a difference."

Defenseman Alexis Rivera said the Islanders have a revamped attitude.

"When the Impact gets on the field [on Friday night and Sunday afternoon], they’re going to find a team with a different mentality. We’re better prepared than we were last season and we have a winning attitude," said Rivera, 22.

Gores called the 2004 season a learning process that helped the Islanders get to where they are now.

"Towards the end of the season we showed we could play against anybody in this league," said Gores, who added that the 2005 schedule is much more forgiving than that of the inaugural season.

"Last year I don’t even think the Islanders had anyone at the league’s meeting when they were planning the itineraries," said Gores. "Last year we played four straight weekends back-to-back. This year, there are only two. Last year, we had a month-long road-trip, which is never good. This year, we have our first two games at home."

The Islanders are finally surviving after an unsuccessful go of it in Puerto Rico back in 1997, when the franchise lasted seven games in San Juan before problems with the local federation and low fan turnout forced them to move to Texas.

The team might not have had a winning season in 2004, but it certainly didn’t lack for fans.

Team vice president Isaac "Sao" Nieves said he hopes the seats will be packed again this season. The Islanders out-sold both baseball and basketball last season, averaging close to 4,000 fans per match and proving Bayamon mayor Ramon Luis Rivera Jr. correct in his decision to convert the stadium from a baseball venue to a soccer pitch. By contrast, the Puerto Rico Winter Baseball League struggled with fewer than 500 fans per game and the Superior Basketball League saw its season shrink from 13 to just nine teams this season.

Gabrielle Paese is a sports reporter in San Juan. She was the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at

Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.

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