Fed Cup II Preview: A Cupping They Will Go
It's time for another big Fed Cup weekend, which only leads to more questions.
The Pastries have Amelie Mauresmo on their side, but does destiny speak French, as well? Facing the Cinderella Dutch squad in the semis, and with the dominant Czechs without Petra Kvitova vs. the Swiss, might the time be right for the French to be the favorites for their second FC crown?
On the other hand, do the Fed Cup Tennis Gods -- a merry subset of the TG's in the big chairs -- constantly play favorites with the Czechs because, well, you know, because of all the OTHER stuff that happens away from Fed Cup to the Maidens?
And, also, does every player sort of resemble Suzanne Lenglen when they wear a headband/headscarf? Or does it help to be French?
Shouldn't Genie Bouchard and the Canadian Fed Cup Team just agree to an amicable separation, for the sake of the kids?
Ummm, Schmiedlova? Schmiedy? Anna Karolina? AKS? Is anyone in there?
How can Fed Cup NOT be fun with The Bracelet and TWO Dashas in the mix in key roles?
Is being TOO Italian sometimes a bad thing? Ask Camila Giorgi.
What is going on with Mary Joe Fernandez? First, she put together "not horrible" U.S. Fed Cup rosters for back-to-back ties. And now she's even delivering actual news with a microphone in front of her (that NEVER happens when she's on ESPN).
In presser in OZ, MJF says ITF president Haggerty wants to propose (in addition to 16 team WG) FC semis & finals played the same wk.— Courtney Nguyen (@FortyDeuceTwits) April 13, 2016
And, of course...
When does Vika play Kasatkina?
Of course, those are just a few of the questions swirling around 2016's second Fed Cup weekend. The answers should ALL be quite interesting. But, then again, shouldn't we expect that from...
Czech Republic at Switzerland - Lucerne/HCI
CZE: Ka.Pliskova, Strycova, Allertova, Hradecka
SUI: Bacsinszky, Golubic, Hingis
In their eighth straight semifinal, with titles in four of the past five years, another berth in the final will make the Czechs the most dominant FC squad since Spain reached six consecutive finals (winning four of five in a stretch) and nine in twelve years (winning five), or maybe even since the seven straight titles won by the U.S. from 1976-82. Thing is, though, about a week ago this tie was setting up to be a prime candidate for an "upset," with the Swiss sporting a loaded squad and playing in front of a home crowd, and with Czech #1 Petra Kvitova sitting out along with her longtime trusty "lieutenant" Lucie Safarova. But then Belinda Bencic's back injury forced HER out of the tie, as well. That changed the entire dynamic of this match-up.
Even while short-handed, Switzerland still has a shot, but now the entire tie rests on Timea Bacsinszky's ability to go 2-0 in singles in order to get things to the deciding doubles, where she'd then likely have to match Bencic's February efforts vs. Germany by joining Martina Hingis (part of Switzerland's last SF/F squad 18 years ago) in doubles in search of a third point. Bacsinszky is capable. Before going 0-2 vs. the Germans, she'd won six straight FC singles matches. 17-13 in career FC singles, Bacsinszky is healthy again after her late '15 knee injury and she's coming off a nice run to the Miami semis. Still, if she can pull off the triple it'll rank amongst the most clutch FC performances in years.
Karolina Pliskova (5-1 singles, 2-0 doubles) put the Czech team on her shoulders in both the '15 final and '16 1st Round, and she'll be called upon to lead the way again. If she can't go 2-0 (and gets clipped in her match-up with Timea), Czech Secret Weapon Barbora Strycova will step into the spotlight. She's been a key doubles specialist in the Czech Republic's recent FC success, but it appears as if she'll play singles, as well, this time around. She's just 6-5 in singles in her FC career, and the possibility remains that a marathon singles match on Day 2 could compromise Strycova's doubles participation in a tight tie. Luckily, Captain Peter Pala could insert either Denisa Allertova or Lucie Hradecka into a Day 2 singles match, or even keep Strycova there and then go with Hradecka/Pliskova in the deciding doubles.
PICK: Czech Republic 3-2 (with Strycova earning MVP honors rather than Pliskova)
NED: Bertens, Hogenkamp, Burger, Rus
FRA: Mladenovic, Garcia, Cornet, Parmentier
Even since Amelie Mauresmo stepped in as the French FC Captain a few years ago, brokering a deal that lured Marion Bartoli into international team competition, then playing hunches and finding ways to calm and get the best of out of the "Please Don't Shake" cans of Pastries on her rosters, an eventual Fed Cup championship has looked to be part of her destiny. 2016 could be the year, as the team is again one win away from a first FC final since 2005 (player Mauresmo & Mary Pierce led the Pastries to the title in '03). After downing Italy for the second straight year, France returns to the semis one year after losing there to the Czechs. Caroline Garcia (5-3 in FC singles) picked up the slack of the up-and-down Kristina "Kiki" Mladenovic (2-3 singles, 8-0 doubles) in February, and they're fresh off winning their first WTA doubles title together in Charleston (they're 3-0 in FC as a pair). Alize Cornet has also returns to the French fold, but one has to think that only Mauresmo's renowned gut instinct, a major hunch or injury will get Cornet onto the court. She's 3-12 in career FC singles and failed to come through for Mauresmo in the 2015 1st Round when she lost on Day 1 to Camila Giorgi to put France down 2-0 vs. Italy, then was pulled from the schedule on Day 2 and was forced to watch France's amazing comeback from the sidelines.
Of course, the overlooked Dutch might have quite a bit to say in this matter. Winners of eight straight ties (all since Paul Haarhuis was installed as Captain), the seemingly-outmatched Netherlands squad pulled off the "Miracle of Moscow" vs. the Russians in February. Kiki Bertens is 19-2 in her FC career (13-1/6-1) and is the unquestioned leader of this team. But THE biggest match in this tie might end up being the clash of the two SECOND-highest ranked players of the rosters, Garcia and Richel Hogenkamp. Hogenkamp's record 4:00 marathon win over Svetlana Kuznetsova was the key moment in the win over the Hordettes. With Mladenovic going 2-0 in singles a shaky prospect at best, a Hogenkamp win over Garcia could ultimately be the moment that tilts this tie in favor of the Dutch.
PICK: France 3-1 (in the '97 final, the Dutch lost to -- you guessed it -- the French). The real drama comes in November.
Belarus at Russia - Moscow/RCI
BLR: Azarenka, Govortsova, Sasnovich, Sabalenka
RUS: Kasatkina, Gasparyan, Vesnina, Kulichkova
On the heels of their massive collapse vs. the Dutch in February, the Hordettes return with an (almost) entirely new team. Only Daria Kasatkina, who teamed with the missing Ekaterina Makarova for Russia's only point in that 4-1 loss to the Netherlands, returns, perhaps signaling the official start of a new era of Russian Fed Cup tennis. Three-fourths of the team -- the teenager w/ Margarita Gasparyan (just 0-1 in doubles) and Elizaveta Kulichkova -- have zero FC singles wins in their careers, while soon-to-be-30 Charleston finalist Elena Vesnina (she labored over eleven hours last week) has mostly been a doubles participant (9-4) rather than a key singles (2-2, w/ no matches since '14) star in her FC history. Someone, or a combination of Hordettes, is going to have to post two singles wins to give Russia a chance in this tie. If things get to the doubles, though, Moscow champs Kasatkina/Vesnina might tip the scales in the favor of the home team.
Meanwhile, Vika Azarenka (14-4 in FC) returns after foregoing Belarus' World Group II win over Canada (led not by veteran Olga Govortsova's efforts, but by Aliaksanda Sasnovich). Will a 2-0 mark from her be enough to send BLR into the 2017 World Group final eight? A third singles win over either Gasparyan or Vesnina isn't a sure thing for either Govortsova or Sasnovich this time around, especially with the Russian crowd possibly adversely impacting the play of every Belarusian without the initials "V.A."
PICK: Belarus 3-1 (MVP Vika goes 2-0, but the score maybe ends up 3-2 with a dead rubber doubles win for Russia)
USA: Keys, Vandeweghe, McHale, Mattek-Sands
AUS: Stosur, Gavrilova, Dellacqua, Ar.Rodionova
Australian Captain Alicia Molik did herself Mauresm-proud vs. Slovakia in February, utilizing new Aussie/FC neophyte Arina Rodionova to take Anna Karolina Schmiedlova to the mat on Day 1. AKS won, but she left bloodied and battered and hasn't won a match since (or even a set), and Australia advanced. Now Molik has another new Aussie toy -- Dasha Gavrilova -- to play with in her FC debut. Really, with the AO sudden star's presence, Australia would seem to have every base covered. Sam Stosur has 29 career FC singles wins (and is 7-0 in doubles), and even sports a winning record (9-5) IN Australia, though she is just 2-4 in home soil singles since 2011. Gavrilova should feed off the Brisbane crowd, and Rodionova has already proven to be a useful contributor for Molik. And then there's Casey Dellacqua, ready to provide doubles support if things go to the fifth match. The Aussies LOOK solid, but FC success on Aussie soil for this generation has sometimes been elusive.
This is normally where I usually allow a mustacheoed photo of U.S. Captain Mary Joe Fernandez to express my general feelings about her roster construction, gameday decisions and her team's chances for victory. But something strange has happened in 2016 -- MJF has actually put together back-to-back competent and versatile rosters. This one isn't perfect by any means, but it might be as good as could be expected for a tie that required a band of Bannerettes to travel all the way Down Under between the North American and European stints of the schedule. There are no Williamses, or either a Current or Future Sloane. Keys has been inconsistent and dealing with injuries for the past year and is just 1-2 in her FC singles career, but she's probably the best option that MJF could pull for this tie. CoCo Vandeweghe (0-3) is a better bet on hard court or grass, and the quietly resurgent Christina McHale (4-5) hasn't won a FC match since 2012. But Bethanie Mattek-Sands is a good emergency option, and the Roland Garros doubles champ could team with Vandeweghe (they just won the Indian Wells title) in a deciding doubles match. I know all that sounds like I'm talking myself out of not criticizing MJF here (and there IS some truth to that nearly happening there, I admit), but I've already decided to hold the line on this temporary MJF "truce." Well, unless things get tight this weekend and Molik runs Captain's rings around her, that is.
And, make no mistake, that very well COULD happen.
PICK: Australia 4-1 (umm, no additional comment)
GER: Kerber, Petkovic, Beck, Goerges
ROU: Halep, Niculescu, Begu, Dulgheru
Of course, Romania's fate might rest as much in the hands of Angelique Kerber and Andrea Petkovic as anything. Germany has flopped in its last two Fed Cup ties (in the semis and 1st Round) largely because of either the exhaustion and/or lack of form of the nation's top two players on FC weekend. Kerber is 10-9 in her FC career, 3-4 in the last three ties; while Petko is 11-5, but 1-3 in singles/doubles in the last two. Young Annika Beck won a key match in February vs. Switzerland in her team debut, and might be called upon once again by Captain Barbara Rittner to provide a spark on Day 2 this time around, as well.
Simona Halep's win over Petra Kvitova in February in Romania's 3-2 loss to the Czechs seemed to invigorate her, causing her to cancel has nasal surgery and announced layoff, declare her game in good form and herself to be back on track to success. Evidence has been inconsistent about the validity of any of that the last few months, but the fact remains that Halep's Day 1 loss to Karolina Pliskova was really the key match in Romania's defeat (she led 7-6/4-4 in match #1, was broken, threw her racket... and the Czech pulled away from that point forward). While Halep has a better FC record (11-4), the more dependable Romanians in this tie might be Monica Niculescu (15-8, and also w/ a win over Kvitova in the 1st Round), Alexandra Dulgheru (6-3) and even Irina-Camelia Begu (4-4). The key might be Dulgheru. Her fire carried Romania past Spain last year after Halep folded vs. Garbine Muguruza, and she could again be called upon to light up the team (and the crowd) should a Halep result threaten to douse the nation's hopes. If Romania loses here, the Swarmettes won't be in the final eight come next February, meaning a '17 FC final will be out of the question.
Really, this thing is so tied to Halep. If she can go 2-0, it's hard to see Romania losing in front a home crowd with Kerber coming in off a hectic week in Charleston (which ended with her retiring w/ illness) and Petkovic having yet to really find her form in '16.
PICK: Romania 3-1 (I don't know how much is real belief, or the desire for that prediction to stay alive for at least another year -- maybe 55%-45%)
ITA: Vinci, Errani, Knapp, Schiavone
ESP: Muguruza, Suarez-Navarro, Sorribes-Tormo, Medina-Garrigues
Off a poor showing vs. the French in February, which included a 0-2 mark from Sara Errani, Italy has reached back into its storied past (and at the risk of repeating myself, given the resurrection qualities of the Italians) quite possibly for the final time. While Flavia Pennetta is still retired, all three of Italy's 2016 WTA singles title winners are teamed up for the first time since the 2012 semifinals (when the entire three FC title-winning Italian Quartet filled out the roster). Roberta Vinci is back for the first time since February of last year (when she and Errani lost the deciding doubles in France's epic road comeback from 0-2, sullying Vinci's 18-0 career FC doubles mark that included six wins w/ her former co-#1 -- the two ended their partnership soon after the loss). She hasn't played a Fed Cup singles match since 2014. Francesa Schiavone is here, too, for the first time since going 0-2 in that '12 SF vs. the Czechs. While Karin Knapp, who took her turn in the #1 roster spot in Team Italia's '14 1st Round win over the U.S., is here, one must have at least a tiny suspicion that the absence of Italy's best young player -- Camila Giorgi -- could prove to haunt the weekend. A RU this past weekend in Katowice, Giorgi's playing style is seemingly perfectly formed from the unique "Italian mold." But her issues with the Italian Tennis Federation finally came to a head recently when she severed ties with the organization, skipping this tie and putting her Olympic berth in jeopardy.
Meanwhile, Spain, as it was when Arantxa Sanchez and (now Captain) Conchita Martinez led the way, looks THIS CLOSE to challenging for a FC title essentially on the backs of two players. Garbine Muguruza has been a Fed Cup monster the last two seasons, going 4-0 in singles and often winning in dominant fashion. Carla Suarez-Navarro is 10-7, but surely up to filling the "#2" role ala Lucie Safarova to Petra Kvitova during the Czechs' current run. Neither has won a FC doubles match, but they're regular tour partners and have had much success (winning four titles in 2014-15). If Spain slips into the 2017 World Group, none of the other seven teams will particularly be wishing to find themselves of the other side the net from this team come next February.
If push comes to shove, it might come down to the doubles here, with Garbi/CSN facing off with Errani/Vinci in the Italians' first pairing in fourteen months. Yes, we could see yet another special moment this week for Italy. Like I said, you can't keep a good Fed Cup team down.
PICK: Italy 3-2 (not sure of how they get there, but when it's Italians and red clay go with the seemingly obvious and you're never wrong... well, except for that one time )
Belgium at Serbia - Belgrade/RCI
BEL: Wickmayer, Flipkens, Bonaventure, Mestach
Not around for the weekend is Ana Ivanovic. AnaIvo, in hardly a shocking decision (that her team refused to tell her she was playing for the #1 ranking in the 2008 RG semis continues to serve to inform us about everything that was always missing from her tennis package and has caused her to never quite get "over the hump"), seems to have essentially "retired" from Fed Cup competition due to criticism and negative media reaction. I'm sure that she probably isn't planning on being in the '20 Olympics plays a part, too (60/40?). Ever after the news broke, Ivanovic has been surprised by the negative reaction in Serbian circles to her decision. Which, again, sort of squarely hits right on the problem, doesn't it?
Oh, well, the real story here SHOULD be the return of The Bracelet, Aleksandra Krunic. The Serbian Good Luck Charm when it comes to Fed Cup competition. Even as a youngster, when Krunic was around, often in a key deciding doubles role, the Serbian FC elevator only went up. The nation climbed from World Group II in 2011 all the way to the '12 final on the back of four straight 3-2 tie victories, nearly all with Krunic playing a role. Krunic never saw the court in the final, as the Serbs lost three of four singles matches to the Czech Republic. She was then usually either left off the roster entirely, or subjected to "mop up" duty while even the likes of Serbian Bad Luck Charm Vesna Dolonc (seemingly just a few minutes after she stopped representing Russia) somehow rose above her in the pecking order (and then failed miserably). Serbia lost five straight ties starting with the final, slipping all the way into Europe/Africa zone play last season. Enter Krunic. Playing the #1 singles role, The Bracelet led the Serbs to promotion, then did it again in the World Group II playoffs last spring. After having surgery to remove a benign (thankfully) tumor, she had to skip Serbia's Group II tie in February. Serbia was crushed by Spain. She's back now, though, having returned to action and qualified in Charleston. Along with Jelena Jankovic (27-11, 7-5), the Serbs will face a deep Belgian squad in Belgrade. Under the circumstances, Krunic's luck-giving powers might be severely tested.
Yanina Wickmayer (10-8) leads the Waffles this weekend, but rising star Alison Van Uytvanck won't be there (see, the good luck might already be shining on Serbia). Additionally, Kirsten Flipkens' poor career Fed Cup history would seem to point in the direction of a good weekend for JJ, Krunic & Co. Flipper is 10-18 in singles, and 1-8 in doubles in her FC career. Ysaline Bonaventure (4-0, but having never played singles in a World Group tie) could be pressed into action on Day 2 in the attempt to get things to the doubles.
PICK: Serbia 3-2 (with Luck)
LATE NOTE: Now the power of Serbia's Fed Cup charm bracelet will be tested even MORE, as JJ is out and Krunic will be in the #1 singles role. I'll still stick with the 3-2 win for Serbia, but there is now a very, very thin margin of error for the Serbs in singles. Krunic might not have to go 2-0 in singles, but it'd sure help.
CAN: Abanda, Fichman, Wozniak, Robillard-Millette
SVK: AK.Schmiedlova, Cibulkova, Cepelova, Mihalikova
Somewhat surprisingly, Bouchard was announced for the Canadian roster last week, then ultimately retired in Charleston with an abdominal injury that put her out of this tie. Whether it's been injuries, poor play or controversy, Bouchard and the Fed Cup have just not mixed well up to this point in her career. So it looks like the promise that young Francoise Abanda has shown in limited FC action -- wins over Govortsova and Begu, a three-set loss to Dulgheru and holding her own vs. Pliskova -- will have to flower BIG TIME this weekend to take up the slack. At least all-time Canadian FC win leader Aleksandra Wozniak (23-9, 8-1) is around to possibly provide on-court support after missing nearly a year after shoulder surgery during the recent period in which Canada's Fed Cup prospects have at least LOOKED better than when she was essentially the only roster player of note earlier in her career.
Truth is, Abanda might just have an opening to become a Fed Cup star here. Anna Karolina Schmiedlova has been a mess all season, and hasn't won a match since she won a marathon FC clash vs. Arina Rodionova in February. Can she regroup and "start over?" It's a legit (and ever more troubling) question. Katowice champ Dominika Cibulkova (18-11) is there to fill the #1 role if AKS can't, but she hasn't played so many matches in a short period of time since her Achilles surgery. Will she still be in top form? Jana Cepelova is all about grit, but she has little FC history (2-3) to call upon. She did win an 11-9 3rd set vs. Bojana Jovanovski in '13, but has gone 0-3 in singles since.
PICK: Slovakia 3-1 (AKS gets a win, but Cibulkova leads the way, then verbally trolls Sharapova in the post-match press conference... or maybe not, we'll see) ;)
TPE: Lee Ya-Hsuan, Hsu Ching-Wen, Chuang Chia-Jung, Chan Chin-Wei
POL: Kania, Jans-Ignacik, Frech, Kawa
Aga Radwanska (34-9, 8-2) was set to return to Fed Cup action, leading what might have been the best top-to-bottom Polish FC roster ever, with Magda Linette and Paula Kania backing her up, and doubles specialist Klaudia Jans-Ignacik waiting in the wings. But Aga's mid-week pull-out was accompanied by Linette leaving the roster, as well. Suddenly, undervalued world #151 Kania is in the lead role. She's 0-1 in her Fed Cup singles career. Poland's Radwanska-led rise up the FC ladder has already slipped into a three-tie losing streak, and the Taiwanese team is not to be overlooked.
Playing in a World Group tie for the first time since 2007, Taiwanese may have just been handed a golden ticket to unexpected success. 31-year old vets Chuang Chia-Jung (7-6, 17-5) and Chan Chin-Wei (14-11, 6-7) have long FC histories, but their careers are mostly known for their doubles. Lee Ya-Hsuan, 20, and Hsu Ching-wen, 19, have had a good deal of recent singles success on the ITF circuit. With the now-compromised Polish roster, a happy-to-just-be-there weekend could be something much, much more. If the Chan sisters, whose deciding doubles win in February elevated this squad out of the zone play and into WG II, were in Inowroclaw (Yung-Jan could even have been the #1 singles player) the Taiwanese might be the favorites. As it is, it'll take some "step-up" moments to emerge with the victory. But the chance is there for the taking, even if Kania goes 2-0.
PICK: Taiwan 3-2 (the new Fed cup Cinderella squad?)
ARG: Irigoyen, Podoroska, Perez-Rojas, Carle
UKR: Tsurenko, K.Bondarenko, Savchuk, L.Kichenok
Still, with Lesia Tsurenko (just 7-9, but 3-0 in February's zone play) and Kateryna Bondarenko (9-9, 11-0) on board, Ukraine should be more than all right on hard courts in Kiev vs. the only South American team participating in World Group play this weekend. Still, don't under-sell the likes of Nadia Podoroska. The 19-year old leading-Nadia-on-the-WTA-tour (will all due respects to the sister of Ukraine roster member Lyudmyla Kickenok, Nadiia), is 7-2 in ITF singles finals, including a win just a few weeks ago. All of those titles have come on clay, though. Of note here is that Podoroska is of Ukrainian descent, so she might have a few irons in this fire. We shall see. Maria Irigoyen is a reliable Fed Cup vet who often puts up a few unexpected results (def. Kurumi Nara in '14, and the late Elena Baltacha in '13), so maybe Podoroska won't have to carry ALL of whatever chance Argentina has solely on her shoulders alone.
Still, could this be Podoroska's first true, "Oh, Nadia!" moment?
PICK: Ukraine 3-1 (umm, probably not yet)
Zone play has already started, but I'll pick here anyway.
*ZONE PLAYOFFS - EUROPE/AFRICA II - Cairo, Egypt (RCO)*
...the Austrian squad (Paszek, Haas, Grabher, Klemenschits) is actually quite good, and should advance. Caroline Wozniacki's ankle injury kept her out of action here, but Denmark still stands a chance for promotion. Liechtenstein (w/ Vogt & von Deichmann) should have been the favorite to be the second team to emerge, but after being upset by Bosnia/Herzegovina in Pool play now may not even reach the Promotional Playoffs.
PICK TO ADVANCE: Austria &
*ZONE PLAYOFFS - ASIA/OCEANIA II - Hua Hin, Thailand (HCO)*
...the Philippines (w/ Katharina Lehnert) and Hong Kong (Zhang Ling) sport the best teams, but must face off in Pool A round robin play on Thursday in what might be the "real" promotional playoff of this two-Pool field.
PICK TO ADVANCE: Philippines
*ZONE PLAYOFFS - EUROPE/AFRICA III - Ulcinj, Montenegro (RCO)*
...there are four Pools here, and only the winners of each have the chance to face off for the two promotion spots. Only one from Pool A's Luxembourg (w/ Minella), Greece (Sakkari, Daniilidou & Papamichael) and Tunisia (Jabeur & Bechri) will get that chance. Same with Pool D's Montenegro (Kovinic) and Norway (Eikeri & Stokke). Norway defeated Montenegro in RR play in a 6-5/4-6/7-6(6) deciding doubles match, so the Norwegians now have the edge there, while Luxembourg seems certain to win the other Pool, with only a tie vs. Malta left to play.
PICKS TO ADVANCE: