Fed Cup II Preview: A Big Clash, a "B-Team," a Good Luck Charm and, uh-oh, a Radwanska Vowing Revenge
It's almost time for the second Fed Cup weekend of 2013, and the questions are endless. For example:
Are the Czechs about to set themselves up for a three-peat, or will the we're-getting-the-old-gang-back-together Italians play spoilers in Palermo? Are the Russians truly back? Even the "B-Team" Hordettes?
But that's just the semifinals. the questions don't end there.
Can the JJ-less (neither Jankovic nor Jaksic) Serbians avoid the slow slide back down the Fed Cup ladder, or will Aleksandra Krunic prove to be Team Serbia's good luck charm once again? Can anyone beat Serena? Can Sam beat anyone? Are the Spaniards a "sure thing" on red clay, or will Ms. Morita have something to say about that? Meanwhile, just what sort of "revenge" is a certain Radwanska planning? Are the resurgent Argentines ready to make a move? Will the Canadian Fed Cuppers be inspired by their Davis Cup counterparts?
Let me see, what else? Oh, yeah. And then there's La Trufflette. Take 2, Marion? Hmmm?
Czech Republic at Italy - Palermo, ITA/RCO
CZE: Kvitova, Safarova,
ITA: Errani, Vinci, Schiavone, Pennetta
...in THE highlight of this FC weekend, the nations that have won the last four Fed Cup titles -- Italy 2009-10, Czech Republic 2011-12 -- meet for the third time in the last five years in the semifinals, with the Italians having won four of their last five ties against the Czechs (though not the most recent, when Kvitova & Co. won at this stage last season). That's not the only rematch to look forward to, either, as this past weekend's Katowice final between Petra Kvitova and Roberta Vinci, won in straight sets by the Italian, is scheduled to be contested once again in Palermo. But no matter her ups-and-downs on the WTA tour since her Wimbledon title run, Kvitova has been rock solid in FC play, going 13-1 in recent seasons, with the sole loss coming in last year's final when she couldn't notch a second win in two days after rising from her sick bed (bronchitis) to play for the title in Prague. Thankfully for the Czechs, after starting her FC career 1-5, Lucie Safarova picked up the slack in that final, leading to a successful title defense (the Czechs haven't lost a tie since April '10), and she's now won four consecutive FC matches. With Andrea Hlavackova not on the roster to team with regular partner Lucie Hradecka in a possible deciding doubles match, both Kvitova and Safarova will have a bit of pressure to try to wrap things up in singles action. As for the host Italians, well, they've gotten the "old gang" back together as both Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta, the stars of Italy's back-to-back title run, return to FC action this weekend along with Vinci and Sara Errani. Schiavone and Pennetta have a combined 42 singles wins for Italy compared to the nine compiled by Errani and Vinci, but with the former two either in poor form or still coming back from injury, it'll likely be the latter two called upon to get the tie to the doubles. Schiavone is under .500 this season, and just 2-4 in FC play from 2011-12 (after a 9-1 run between 2008-10); while Pennetta is a shockingly good 20-4 in singles for Italy, 13-1 since '09 with ten consecutive wins, but hasn't played a solo Fed Cup match since 2011. What with their history, though, it'd be no shock to see either get called upon to get a win on Day 2 to push things to the doubles, where the world's #1 team would get the shot to clinch a Team Italia victory for the second time this season. As a pair, Errani & Vinci are 6-0 in FC play, and have won 28 straight matches on red clay. Vinci, for her part, has never lost a Fed Cup doubles match, going 18-0 in her career. If this tie goes to the doubles still live, it'd be hard to imagine Errani/Vinci not putting things away in front of a partisan crowd. But I'm thinking it won't get that far, with the Czechs, road warriors in FC play in the past, wrapping things up -- possibly with great difficulty -- in singles play, then the Italians getting a late second point once things have already been decided. PICK: CZECH REPUBLIC 3-2
NOTE: Zakopalova has been replaced on the roster by Hlavackova, perhaps in possible preparation for a potential tie-deciding doubles match vs. Errani/Vinci?
Slovak Republic at Russia - Moscow, RUS/RCI
RUS: Kirilenko, Pavlyuchenkova, Makarova, Vesnina
SVK: Cibulkova, Hantuchova, Rybarikova, Cepelova
...the Russians, in their seventh straight Fed Cup semi (but without a title since '08), went into the 1st Round in February with a gang of "B-team" Hordettes with very little FC experience. They barely survived, having to win the doubles to advance 3-2 in Moscow against a Japanese team making its first World Group appearance since 2007. Well, here we go again, with mostly the same group of Russians against a much more experienced Slovak team, once again in Moscow. The entire Russian team has just six singles wins in FC play. That's less than each of three of the Slovaks -- Hantuchova (29), Cibulkova (16) and Rybarikova (7). And the fourth Slovak, Jana Cepelova, proved to be a clutch performer in February, getting a key Day 2 win against Serbia when called upon to replace an injured Cibulkova. Still, even with all the FC experience, this is the Slovaks' first appearance in the semifinals since 2002, when the team won its one and only title as an independent nation. I think the Russian singles players will hold their own, but this one will come down to the doubles. And, there, probably with a team of Cibulkova/Hantuchova in action, I'm going to go with the potential upset becoming a reality. PICK: SLOVAK REPUBLIC 3-2
*WORLD GROUP PLAYOFFS*
Serbia at Germany - Stuttgart/RCI
SRB: Ivanovic, Jovanovski, Dolonc, Krunic
GER: Kerber, Barthel, Lisicki, Groenefeld
...fresh off losses in last year's FC final and February's 1st Round, the Serbs are back for more. JJ isn't here, but AnaIvo is healthy enough to participate. And "good luck charm" Aleksandra Krunic is an original nomination for the team, as well, after being left off the roster last time out (only to be placed there late when Ivanovic pulled out... but the bad karma die has already been cast). Kerber is the #1 singles player for Germany here, and the highest-rated player from either country in Stuttgart, but she's only got two career FC wins, and the pressure will be on her to hold up her end on both days with the team minus Julia Goerges, and with Mona Barthel making her maiden FC appearance. Ditto for AnaIvo (13-6), though BoJo (4 wins) has proven in the past that she can place the Serbian team on her shoulders and carry through. I'm going "old school" here, with the singles matches going 2-2 and, once again, the fate of the Serbs coming down to the doubles. As long as Krunic (3-1 in doubles, with all three wins being tie-deciding matches en route to the '12 final) is on the court for that match, I'll go with the Serbs staying in the World Group for '14. PICK: SERBIA 3-2
Australia at Switzerland - Chiasso-Seseglio/RCO
AUS: Stosur, Dellacqua, Barty, Gajdosova
SUI: Oprandi, Voegele, Bacsinszky, Sadikovic
...the Aussies hit the road. Whew! Good for them. In February in Prague, against the defending champion Czechs, Australia actually had a shot at the upset. But Sam Stosur, who'd entered on a six-match winning streak in FC matches played anywhere other than Down Under, fumbled away big leads against both Kvitova and Safarova, sealing the team's fate. While hoping to avoid more problems with her lingering calf injury, she'll be called on to carry the team again in Switzerland, where her 22 career FC singles wins are more than the entire Swiss team combined. I'll show some faith in Sam. Gulp. PICK: AUSTRALIA 4-1
Japan at Spain - Barcelona/RCO
ESP: Suarez-Navarro, Dominguez-Lino, Soler-Espinosa,
JPN: Morita, Doi, Nara, Aoyama
...the Japanese nearly upset the Russians in Moscow in February, so they can't be overlooked here as long as Morita (16-7 in FC singles, with 11 consecutive wins) is leading the charge. Plus, no members of the Spanish team has a winning record in FC play. But, still, the red clay and the home crowd support make it impossible to pick against Team España, even if Morita is able to make it 13 straight singles wins. PICK: SPAIN 3-2
NOTE: AMG, with 10 career FC wins, has been added to the Spanish roster
Sweden at United States - Delray Beach, California/RCI
USA: S.Williams, Stephens, V.Williams, Lepchenko
SWE: Arvidsson, Larsson, Melander, Roma
...a pair of quite possibly the best FC duos ever will be in attendance in Delray Beach as the Williams Sisters (22-2 in singles and 2-0 as a doubles duo) and vets Arvidsson & Larsson (57 singles wins between them, 11 more as a doubles duo, and just off having led a Swedish comeback from a 2-0 Day 1 hole last time out vs. Argentina) face off. Naturally, the Bannerettes are heavily favored in this first USA/SWE match-up since 1988, as Serena (a combined 11-0 in FC play) will be expected to lead the victory march. And it'll happen, too. But what will be interesting will be to see whether or not Stephens holds up her end, considering her lacking results since she upset Serena in Melbourne. Sloane was supposed to play for the U.S. in February but pulled out with an abdominal injury, so she's still looking to make her FC singles debut. If she falters, Venus or even Varvara Lepchenko (w/ wins over both Errani and Vinci vs. Italy in February) might be called on on Day 2 to provide a clinching point. Sloane or no Sloane... PICK: UNITED STATES 4-1
*WORLD GROUP II PLAYOFFS*
Poland at Belgium - Koksijde/HCI
POL: A.Radwanska, U.Radwanska, Piter, Rosolska
BEL: Flipkens, Van Uytvanck, Mestach, Bonaventure
...the Poles travel to Belgium to try to get back into World Group II in '14 for the first time since 2010, when they lost a home tie to, you guessed, the Waffles. Hence, a certain Radwanska's vow to serve up a little revenge. Uh-oh. Despite the home court advantage, things don't look particularly good for the Belgians. For one, A-Rad comes in with a 27-6 singles record in FC play and is sporting a streak of eight straight Fed Cup wins without losing a set, and she's backed up by sister Urszula (10-8), whose recent addition as a singles point winner for Poland has really keyed the Poles' threat to begin to move up the FC ladder. Plus, with Yanina Wickmayer out of action, the fact that Kirsten Flipkens -- 8-15 in FC play (and 1-7 in doubles!) and coming off having been pulled from action on Day 2 in February after having been worked over by Romina Oprandi (SUI) one day earlier -- will be the top Belgian singles player doesn't exactly stoke one's confidence in success. The other three teenagers that make up the Waffle roster are a combined 1-2 in singles, with only Alison Van Uytvanck having ever played a Fed Cup match. I'm won't mess with The Radwanska, and neither will the Belgians. PICK: POLAND 5-0
Kazakhstan at France - Besancon/HCI
FRA: Bartoli, Cornet, Mladenovic, Garcia
KAZ: Shvedova, Pervak, Voskoboeva, Karatantcheva
...well, here we go again. In February, all of French coach Amelie Mauresmo's work to finally get Marion Bartoli on the team for the first time in nine years went up in smoke when La Trufflette came down with the flu and pulled out days before the start of play. France went on to go 0-3 in singles against the Germans. Well, Bartoli is back again, still looking to finally make her FC singles debut at age 28. Thing is, with the rest of the French team a combined 1-9, she'll probably have to put this tie on her back with no history that says she can. Really, even with the French venue, the Kazakhs should win this, with the likes of Yaroslava Shvedova (8-5/6-2), Ksenia Pervak (3-0) and Galina Voskoboeva (6-3/12-3) on the roster, and even #4 slot Sesil Karatantcheva (11-5) with loads of FC experience. But I'm going to take a chance and go the other way, banking on the notion that Bartoli WILL lead, Shvedova will be as shaky as she was in February's FC action, and that the French crowd will unnerve a Kazakh team still looking to make its first big Fed Cup splash. I might regret it, but... PICK: FRANCE 3-2
Great Britain at Argentina - Buenos Aires/RCO
GBR: Robson, Konta, Keothavong, Baltacha
ARG: Ormaechea, Irigoyen, Molinero, Auroux
...and the winner gets the Falkland Islands! Ha! Come now, we don't really want to open up THAT can of worms again, do we? Still, even this FC match-up has a history that goes way back, as this will be the first meeting between these two nations since 1980. South American tennis has had a bit of a resurgence over the past year, and the deepening roster of Argentine talent is (so far) the "crown jewel." Led by Paula Ormaechea, who seemed on her way to winning a clinching singles match to sweep Sweden in February (before an injury forced her to retire, igniting that huge comeback by the Swedes), will once again be called upon to lead Argentina against the Brits. She's 7-5 in her FC career. Laura Robson, on a bit of a slide (5-7 in WTA matches, but with a fine FC record in zone play last February) since her upset of Petra Kvitova at the Australian Open, won't have Heather Watson by her side in Buenos Aires. If she did, it'd be easy to take Great Britain here and not look back. Vets Anne Keothavong (21 wins) and Elena Baltacha (19) give the teams some good roster depth, but it'll really be up to Robson here -- and she's lost five times to players ranked below her since the AO, including twice to women ranked outside the Top 100. Well, every member of the Argentine team is currently ranked #100+. Hmm... uh-oh? I'll go with the upset here, though seeing as Argentina is the host nation playing on red clay I'm not sure it's really that BIG of an upset. PICK: ARGENTINA 3-2
Canada at Ukraine - Kiev/RCI
CAN: Bouchard, Fichman, Dubois, Dabrowski
UKR: Tsurenko, Svitolina, Beygelzimer, Kozlova
...look out, here comes Canada. The group of (mostly) youngsters (mostly) coasted through Americas zone play in February, and they don't necessarily have their back against the wall this weekend on the road in Kiev against a Ukrainian team in this weekend's FC tie featuring the most "new faces." Canada will need Bouchard (5-1 in FC play) and Fichman (8-2) to rise to the occasion, perhaps with some veteran backup from Dubois (12-8), against a team led by Tsurenko (3-6) and Svitolina (0-3). On the heels of the Canadian Davis Cup team pulling off back-to-back victories this season over Spain and Italy to reach the semifinals, I'll go with the women to keep this run going. PICK: CANADA 3-2
I'll update my picks before the weekend if late injuries/withdrawals warrant changes, and I'll be back with the FC Day 1 Update on Saturday.
All for now.