FC I Preview: Let the Fed Cup Games Begin
Well, it's time to unwrap our first helping of Fed Cup-related treats in 2016.
Some big stars have slipped into the national colors for the first time this season, and it promises to result in a very interesting weekend. Oh, that and Mary Joe Fernandez has actually smartly constructed a rather nice roster for the U.S. squad.
Yeah, I know... go figure.
Obviously, that means it could be WILD weekend.
*WORLD GROUP I 1st Round*
Czech Republic at Romania (Cluj-Napoca - HCI)
...I've been touting a 2016-17 title/final run by the Swarmettes for a few years now, and here is where the proverbial rubber meets the road and something has to GET DONE if it's going to happen this season. Both ROU and CZE have gone undefeated in Fed Cup play the last two years, but they haven't met since 1980. While it's nice for the Romanians to play at home, they couldn't have picked a worse 1st Round opponent (only maybe Russia would be equally tough) than the two-time defending (and very deep) Czech squad. Even without Lucie Safarova or either member of the "Double H" doubles duo there's still talent to spare for Captain Petr Pala to choose from, especially since Petra Kvitova is around to play on indoor hardcourts. Meanwhile, singles #2 Karolina Pliskova put the team on her shoulders en route to the title last year, while Barbora Strycova is the "secret weapon" who has helped pull out some tight ties in the deciding doubles during the Maidens' dynastic FC run. Simona Halep is putting off nasal surgery to play this tie, one year after she crumbled on the Romania-hosted stage in FC against Spain & Garbine Muguruza (but was bailed out by, mostly, Irina-Camelia Begu). The Swarmettes somehow need to find a way to push things to the doubles, and then hope the raucous crowd will tip the scales in their favor vs. a likely Pliskova/Strycova duo. If Alexandra Dulgheru, who led the road win over Canada that got the team here, was on this roster I'd give Romania a slight chance at an upset, with Pliskova maybe faltering under the pressure of a hostile environment. Pliskova still might blink to open a small window of opportunity, but it's hard seeing her going winless in singles. So SOMEONE has to defeat Kvitova... and that's a mean feat in Fed Cup, where she's 24-4 indoors. Halep has the chance to be the hero, but the view from here is pretty skeptical.
PICK: Czech Republic def. Romania 3-1 (with maybe a 3-2 final score w/ a possible "dead rubber" doubles win for ROU to soothe the ill feelings)
...and here's to hoping for a WG Playoff win in the spring, and a better 1st Round draw for 2017 to keep my prediction alive at least one more season
Switzerland at Germany (Leipzig - HCI)
...wow, what an interesting tie. Switzerland has it's "dream team" together, hopefully with Dream Teamer Martina Hingis being held back for only doubles participation this time around. She might be needed there, too. Meanwhile, AO champ Angelique Kerber is back at it again, along with Andrea Petkovic. Those two asking out of Day 1 play in last year's semifinals (GER went down 0-2 vs. RUS) likely cost Germany a second straight trip to the FC final, and here is their chance at team redemption (their furious Day 2 comeback nearly saved the day last spring, but GER lost in the doubles). Well, that is, unless Kerber's long two weeks in Melbourne means that once again she'll play a limited role. If that's the case, this tie will go to the doubles, with whatever Swiss combo (Hingis w/ Bencic, or Bacsinszky?) having an equal shot at a road win vs. (probably) Groenefeld and an unnamed partner (unless the recent Kerber/Petko doubles duo carries over to FC). Timea Bacsinszky's lacking '16 results gives the edge to Germany, as Belinda Becic (4-1 in FC) will likely get at least one singles victory. If Kerber is in full form/participation, this might be easier than Switzerland's nice roster would lead one to believe.
PICK: Germany def. Switzerland 3-1
...Hingis might get the weekend off. This would set up a crazy-good semifinal rematch of the '14 final vs. the Czechs.
Italy at France (Marseille - HCI)
...last year, on Italian clay, the Pastries came back from 0-2 down on Day 1 to shock Errani & Co. and seemingly put an end to Italy's recent great Fed Cup era. But Italy rebounded, with Flavia Pennetta's help in her hometown, to give them maybe one more chance at glory with 50% of the roster consisting of two of the nation's four FC legends (in this case, Sara Errani and Francesca Schiavone, who could be having her FC farewell party this weekend), with NextGen Cupper Camila Giorgi also here for the "hand-off" of the baton. It's become clear that Captain Amelie Mauresmo's favored FC weapon is Kiki Mladenovic, and she'll be in the key role again this weekend. With Caroline Garcia an iffy prospect, as always, Mladenovic might have to have a hand in all three wins if France is going to take this tie. This one SO has the look of a battle that will come down to the doubles, with Garcia/Mladenovic once again having a tie on their rackets, this time possibly against the veteran pair of Errani/Schiavone for all the Marseille marbles. Yes, please.
PICK: France def. Italy 3-2
...Queen Kiki celebrates with Garcia and Mauresmo once again. Barring a Si-mo-na sighting, Mladenovic has a good chance to the this weekend's Overall MVP.
Netherlands at Russia (Moscow - HCI)
...despite some questionable (on so many levels) Shamil Tarpischev-related threats about HAVING to participate if she wants to play in Rio, Maria Sharapova is back after leading the Hordettes to the FC final a year ago. She gave it her all vs. the Czechs, but didn't have Svetlana Kuznetsova or Ekaterina Makarova by her side last fall (meaning Captain Anastasia Myskina's bad habit of relying on namesake Pavlyuchenkova sunk Team Russia's chances), but the better parts of the Russian gang are present this time around. It'll make all the difference. This Russian team is, from top to bottom, THE best squad in action this weekend. The Dutch team should be proud of themselves for having climbed so high while proving that a team can sometimes be better than the sum of its parts, but the journey ends here.
PICK: Russia def. Netherlands 4-0
...if Sharapova sticks around all season, the Russians might be the favorites to end the Czech title run.
UPDATE: as of the Friday lineup announcements, Sharapova is listed as only playing doubles. One wonders how much the whole does-she-need-to-be-there-to-be-Olympic-eligible situation might be playing into that. It shouldn't matter with the end result, though, as Kuznetsova and Makarova should be more than enough. Maybe NED gets a point, though.
*WORLD GROUP II*
Australia at Slovak Republic (Bratislava - HCI)
...I'd like Australia's chances much better if, say, Daria Gavrilova were in this mix. But, hey, at least the Aussies aren't playing on home soil... so they maybe have a shot. The big problem for SVK is that Schmiedlova and Hantuchova (and Cepelova, for that matter) aren't in fine form at the start of 2016, so Dominika Cibulkova might have to be perfect for this home tie to not go to waste. Australia lost a pair of 4-1 ties last season, but may have pulled the lucky card in the deck by catching the Slovaks at precisely the right time. One can't expect Stosur to go 2-0 in singles, so returning-from-her-concussion Casey Dellacqua or Jarmila Wolfe (who specializes in long, dramatic FC matches that she ends up losing) probably need to get a singles win to push things to the doubles. There, one would think that a duo of Stosur/Dellacqua or Stosur/Wolfe (or even Birrell/Wolfe, who reached a Week 2 tour final?) would have the advantage.
PICK: Australia def. Slovak Republic 3-2
...rolling the dice on a Dasha-less group of Aussies, albeit ones safely tucked Up and Over the horizon rather than Down Under it.
Spain at Serbia (Kraljevo - HCI)
...the Serbian team finally ended their long FC losing streak last year when the Serbian Good Luck Charm once again was part of the roster. Well, Aleksandra "The Bracelet" Krunic is out (surgery) this weekend, and it's difficult NOT to get that queasy feeling that the Serbs are going to have a flashback moment on home soil. Jelena Jankovic is leading the way, but she's backed up by Bojana Jovanovski. BoJo is 0-3 in '16, has won just four total games in those losses and has been bageled four times in six sets this season. The Serbs are just overmatched here. If Garbine Muguruza is healthy, this could get ugly fast.
PICK: Spain def. Serbia 4-0
...oh, Good Luck Charm. Where art thou? Healthy and back in the fold for the next tie in the spring, hopefully (or the Serbs could fall back into the zone play again for '17).
Belarus at Canada (Quebec City - HCI)
...Genie Bouchard decided not to play in this tie back home in Quebec. For once, she's made a GOOD Fed Cup decision. At least she won't be blamed this time around when things go horribly wrong. Well, then again, maybe she will... but she hasn't been much count in Quebec-hosted ties or WTA events the last two years, so whatever. This would actually be an really interesting battle if a certain former #1 wasn't playing, but it's hard too see Belarus doing anything but running roughshod over the Canadians with Victoria Azarenka (presumably, with all her rackets -- as last February her gear arrived mysteriously late for zone play) around. Even the low end -- Australian Open girls champ Vera Lapko -- of the BLR roster might give a run to the top of Canada's, though should-be-the-leader-no-matter-her-age Francois Abanda's good first season of FC action in '15 hints that the home team has a chance to at least avoid an embarrassing shutout.
PICK: Belarus def. Canada 4-1
...get ready for the Team Belarus group (yabba-)dab(-adoo).
UPDATE: in a big shocker, Azarenka's name was included on the updated team roster on Friday, so this one might just tighten up considerably. I still think Govortsova and Sasnovich will be enough for BLR to win, but I'll cut the final score down to 3-2 (with either Abanda getting two wins, or the doubles coming into play)
Poland at United States (Kailua Kona - HCO)
...I come not to bury U.S. Captain Mary Joe Fernandez, but to praise her. For once. Yeah, I know -- it shocks me, too. Maybe it's the prospect of the only outdoor tie this weekend that has caused the Tennis Gods to look down upon MJF in this opening FC tie of '16 and set her up for a triumphant moment, perhaps to set her and her team up for an even bigger fall later this year. Or maybe that'll come this weekend in Hawaii? But, come now, the Bannerettes couldn't possibly squander a home tie against a Polish squad minus a single Radwanska now that Tomasz Wiktorowski is no longer team Captain, could they? Hmmm. Probably not. After all, Fernandez has managed to put together a complete, balanced and versatile team capable of surviving a Plan B situation this time around. Something MJF never seemed to bother doing in the recent past, and lived to regret it. She's enlisted a Williams (Venus), a young rising star (Stephens), a versatile semi-newcomer (Vandeweghe, fresh off good AO doubles results) and a veteran (BMS) who could fill in for anyone in singles or doubles, or even take on a bigger load due to illness, injury or emergency at any time this weekend. All bases seem to have been covered. Which makes me think I must have missed something -- this can't be a Fernandez roster. Of course, one injury or bad match could put MJF in a decision-making position that could blow up the entire tie, right, even with so many good options? I mean, Venus could be "limited," and Sloane might "feel the pressure," leading MJF to put Vandeweghe in a lead role on Day 2 that she's not ready for or, gulp, adding Christina McHale to the roster and playing her rather than BMS. Right? Linette (a '15 tour finalist) and Kania (a '15 slam Last Qualifier Standing... but on the Parisian clay) aren't pushovers, but they really shouldn't win any of their combined four singles matches in this tie vs. this U.S. roster, but MJF is still just one lost player away from being given just enough rope to hang this squad. All right, all right... truthfully, I can't really find a way to talk my way into a Worst Case Scenario for MJF this time around. I guess it'll have wait until the spring.
PICK: United States def. Poland 4-0
...of course, the MJF-with-mustache pic is ready to go, just in case.
US Fed Cup team bringing Venus, Stephens, Vandeweghe and Mattek-Sands to Hawaii next weekend. Should cruise against Radwanska-less Poland.— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) January 27, 2016
Famous last words?
Zone play has been going on at various sites the last few days, so I can't really preview anything there. But I can still make picks! I can ALWAYS make picks.
Group I - Europe/Africa (Host: Eilat, ISR - HCO)
The British team of Heather Watson, Katie Swan (the youngest ever Cupper for GBR) and Jocelyn Rae/Anna Smith is arguably better than a few squads in World Group play. They should advance, along with the Svitolina-less Ukrainians with Lesia Tsurenko and Kateryna Bonadarenko. Turkey has an underrated roster, but is always going to be fighting against the Euro tide in this zone.
PROMOTION PICKS (2): GBR & UKR
Group I - Asia/Oceania (Host: Hua Hin, THA - HCO)
China probably has the best roster (Zheng Saisai, Wang Qiang, Wang Yafan & Liang Chen), but since when has that meant anything at FC time? They've already lost to Taiwan, the best team in the same pool with the Chinese, in round robin play.
PROMOTION PICK (1): TPE
Group I - Americas (Host: Cruz, BOL - RCO)
Teliana Pereira is once again leading the Brazilian team.
PROMOTION PICK (1): BRA
Group II - Americas (Host: Bayamon, PUR - HCO)
The two best teams -- Venezuela and Chile -- are in the same pool, while the top player (Puerto Rico's Monica Puig) is in the other. Only two can make it through to advance.
PROMOTION PICKS (2): PUR & VEN
Check back on Saturday, as I'll be doing an update on Day 1 of World Group play before the regular weekly wrap-up following this first Fed Cup weekend of the year.
All for now.