IRELAND men's tennis side face a battle to avoid relegation in this week's European Team Championship.Based on world rankings, Belgium and Poland are set to contest the final in the First Division event, at Malta, with the winners clinching promotion to the Champions' Division.
Belgium and Poland each have a player ranked in the world top 300 and 400 for the competition which runs from today until Saturday.
This would leave the four remaining countries Ireland, Denmark, Malta and Portugal slugging it out to avoid filling the two relegation places to the Second Division.
Malta look almost certain to make the drop, and so Ireland, Denmark and Portugal will be engaged in a fierce dog-fight to avoid joining the Maltese minnows.
In terms of world rankings, Denmark and Portugal have the edge over the Irish. The top Denmark and Portugal players are respectively ranked at 618 and 654, respectively, whereas their Irish counterpart, Owen Casey, is placed at 810.
However, world rankings do not always work out in international team events. Ireland will take heart from last year's corresponding series in Belfast, when John Doran defeated Patrik Langvardt, the top Danish player in this year's side.
Doran's victory margin was 3-6, 7-6, 6-2, and interestingly he does not have a world ranking. This is because he is a tennis scholarship student at Harvard University, and so does not have an opportunity to play in world ranking events.
Clontarf lad Doran is once again in the Ireland side, which is completed by Casey and Scott Barron, who has recovered from a knee injury which sidelined him from the Davis Cup win over Monaco, in July.
Along with Ireland coach Peter Wright, Doran flew straight from the US, through Frankfurt, to Malta. And they joined up on Monday evening in Malta with Casey and Barron.
In the European Women's Team Championship, Ireland missed out on one of the two promotion places, when they finished third in Oporto, at the weekend.
Slovenia and Luxembourg, who contested Sunday's final, with the Balkans winning 2-1, will play next year in Division One. After beating Malta 2-1 on Friday, Ireland lost 1-2 to Slovenia on Saturday, before clinching third spot with a 2-1 success over Portugal, on Sunday.
Over the next 10 days, Irish teenage aces Elsa O Riain (Cork) and Catherine Lynch (Dublin) will be working out at the famed Nick Bolletieri tennis school in Florida.
This golden opportunity for the two players is due to the generosity of a New York-based Irish-American tennis enthusiast, who still plays the game despite being over 80 years of age.
National title for Downey
CAMOGIE star Ann Downey broke new ground at the weekend, when she captured her first National squash title.
The Kilkenny woman triumphed in the Irish Veterans' Championship over-40 women's singles, beating Galway player Norri O'Grady 3-0 in the final.
Downey's feat is additionally creditable, due to the fact that up to 1996, she had taken a break from squash for eight years.
``I decided to make a comeback two years ago, as my club, Freshford, had gained promotion to the Premier Division in Leinster, and they asked me to give them a hand out,'' explained Downey, who didn't begin to play squash until she was 22.
Ann, the winner of a remarkable 12 All-Ireland camogie medals, opted out of squash back in 1988, as she had achieved her ambition in the game.
``I was picked as travelling reserve for the Ireland senior team for about five years, and then in 1987, I made the breakthrough to the actual team,'' she recalled.
``I got three caps in the Home Internationals, at Edinburgh, and won my match against Scotland and Wales. Shortly after that, I decided to totally concentrate on camogie.''
Since her comeback, Downey, who has a twin sister Angela, who also has won 12 All-Ireland camogie medals, has received further squash international representation.
Last year, she was capped twice in the Veterans' Home Internationals, in Scotland, lining out against Scotland and Wales.
In the National Veterans' final, at Fitzwilliam, Downey didn't drop a game against O'Grady, the scoreline reading 9-5, 9-7, 9-4.
Ann, who won her first All-Ireland camogie medal in 1974, intends continuing to combine squash and camogie.
``I don't know how long more I'll play camogie at inter-county level, but I'll definitely be involved in the Leinster final against Dublin, on Sunday.''
Irish chase double delight in Cardiff
TWO victories on the trot is the target for Ireland's badminton team in tomorrow's Triangular International against Scotland and Wales, at Cardiff.
Last year, Ireland won the event for the first time, when it was staged at Ballymena. But this time, the Irish will be hit by the absence of Michael O'Meara and Michael Watt, who played key parts in the 1997 success.
Tipperaryman O'Meara, who played with Leinster, has retired, and Ulsterman Watt is now confining himself to club competition.
In the absence of O'Meara and Watt, the eight-strong Ireland team is along predictable lines. Belfast brothers Bruce and Mark Topping, along with Ulster-based Scot Leslie Dewart and Clare's Donie O'Halloran, who plays with Leinster, make up the men's s side.
They will be joined by Dublin trio Sonya McGinn, Elaine Kiely and Keeling Fox, and Belfast's Jayne Plunkett.
No 1 women's player McGinn will have a point to prove, after suffering a disappointing loss in the first round of the Scottish Open, last weekend, to German Petra Overder.
Meanwhile, Dublin's Eoin Byrne justified his red-hot favouritism in the Irish Junior ranking table tennis event, at Cork, over the weekend.
The Dundrum lad captured the boys' singles under-17 title, when he defeated Cork's Mark White in straight games.
Another big Cork hope, Linda Mounjoy, the top under-17 player in Britain and Ireland, failed in her bid to net the girls' singles' under-17 title.
Mounjoy made her exit at the semi-final stage, where she clashed with Noelle Lennon, who went on to beat fellow Dub Suzanne Monnelly 21-18, 17-21, 21-17, in the final.
In the boys' under-14 singles, the form book was torn to shreds, when Eoin Byrne's brother, Colin, failed in his bid to make it a family double.
Byrne had his hopes dashed in the semi-finals, and the final produced a novel all-Cavan pairing between Sean Brady and Dane Smith, both from the Castlerahan club with Brady capturing the honours on a 21-18, 19-21, 21-18 scoreline.
The focus this weekend is on the Leinster Senior Open, at the IWA Hall, in Clontarf.
All of the top players, such as Ger Boyle (Dublin), Brian Fitzgerald (Cork), Andrew Dennison (Belfast), Brioni Lane (Athlone), Andrea Glover (Downpatrick) and Tara Bollard (Dublin), are in the field.
BADMINTON Triangular International, Cardiff, Thurs; Leinster U19 Open, Terenure Centre, Fri, Sat; Munster U15 Open, Sat, Sun, Cork; Project Invitational U17 event, Terenure Centre, Sun.
SQUASH Mount Pleasant Open, Fri-Sun.
TABLE TENNIS Leinster Senior Open, IWA Hall, Clontarf, Sat; Leinster Junior Classic, IWA Hall, Sun.
TENNIS European Men's Team Championship, First Division, Group White, Malta,