On paper, the United States can field a better team than Austria for their Davis Cup semifinal. But the Austrians are doing everything they can to ensure themselves a home-court advantage.
Public interest in the Austria-U.S. semifinal, which begins Friday, has been so great that a clay court was built inside the Prater soccer stadium. The Austrian team will be backed by more than 20,000 fans each day to see Austria make its first semifinal Davis Cup appearance.And why a clay court?
Because Austria's best player, Thomas Muster, is one of the world's best on the slow surface. The Austrians' No. 2 player, Horst Skoff, also prefers clay - and most American players don't.
Both teams practiced Wednesday on the court as workmen completed stands and youngsters played soccer on another part of the grass field.
"The court is fine. It's a little slow because it's been raining the last few days," said Michael Chang, who along with Andre Agassi will play singles for the United States.
Chang will face Muster and Agassi will play Skoff in Friday's opening matches. The U.S. doubles team of Rick Leach and Jim Pugh will play Muster and Alex Antonitsch on Saturday. In reverse singles Sunday, Agassi faces Muster and Chang plays Skoff.
"It's hard to tell what it's going to be like because no one is here yet," said Chang, the only American in the last 35 years to win the world's premier clay-court tournament, the French Open, which he did in 1989. "We'll see what it's like when there are people in the seats."
In the other semifinal series, Australia plays Argentina on the grass at White City.
Australian Pat Cash plays Alberto Mancini in Friday's first singles match, followed by Wally Masur against Argentina's Martin Jaite. On Saturday, the Australian doubles team of Mark Kratzmann and Darren Cahill will play Argentines Javier Frana and Christian Miniussi.
Jaite and Mancini both are clay court specialists who rarely play on grass, but captain Alejandro Gattiker on Thursday said the Argentines are capable of rising to the occasion and playing aggressive tennis on the unfamiliar faster surface.
"Both our singles players are going well and the spirit in the team is really fine," Gattiker said.
"We are obviously not as confident as we would be on clay, but the Davis Cup is a big motivator and we are in good shape."
Sunday's reverse singles pit Cash against Jaite and Masur against Mancini.
If the Americans win their semifinal series, the final would be played at the Florida SunCoast Dome in St. Petersburg, regardless of who wins the Argentina-Australia battle.
Muster is back among the world's best after his career was threatened by a freak auto accident early last year in Florida. A car backed into him while he was loading his bags in the trunk, severely damaging his knee.
Ironically, a car backed into Skoff's left knee last weekend as he took his bags from the trunk during a tournament in Geneva, Switzerland.