Well, it's time to unwrap our first helping of Fed Cup-related treats in 2017.
Hmmm, let's see. We have new captains, a rock star temporarily replacing a "rock star," and tour up-and-comers looking to follow the Pliskovian path to success (and taking the time to consult those with decades of experience, too).
Of course, we also have only one of the last twenty-five (and 2-of-28) women's singles slam winners in action this week. But, it's Fed Cup, and the drama is sure to come, no matter the names that are involved.
Oh, and, once again, we have the Czech Maidens. We always have the Czech Maidens, don't we? History continues to call them home. Well, unless...
But opening the 2017 Fed Cup title door is never as simple as it might appear. But, oh, if it happened, the result would be crazytime...
Now, about this weekend...
*WORLD GROUP I 1st Round*
Spain at Czech Republic (Ostrava - HCI)
CZE: Ka.Pliskova,Strycova,Siniakova,Safarova (Capt: Pala)
ESP: Muguruza,Arruabarrena,Sorribes,Martinez-Sanchez (Capt: C.Martinez)...three years ago, the Maidens escaped a sticky 1st Round wicket against the Spanish squad, winning 3-2 in the deciding doubles. They went on to win their first of now three straight FC titles (the first nation to do that since Spain from 1993-95). In fact, while the Czechs have won nine straight ties, the last four have all come by the skin of their teeth via 3-2 wins that went down to the final match of the weekend. The question is, do the women of Spain have enough to get that elusive additional win that would overturn the 2017 FC apple cart? Umm, probably not. If Carla Suarez-Navarro was in uniform in Ostrava, things might be different. But Garbine Muguruza, even if she's able to maintain her spotless FC career singles mark (6-0), is going to need SOMEONE ELSE to pull off an upset in front of the Czech crowd. Truthfully, it's difficult to see it happening. Karolina Pliskova (7-3 singles/4-0 doubles, all on indoor hard court) and Barbora "Secret Weapon" Strycova (8-6/10-3), who have put the team on their backs for most of the last two years, return, and they're joined by a debuting Katerina Siniakova (a recent tour singles champ) and Lucie Safarova (in her first tie since the '15 semis). If this tie was being played on clay, Lara Arruabarrena (2-0 FC) might be capable of an upset, but as things stand, if Pliskova gets a win over Muguruza in the top singles match-up, things could get ugly.
PICK: CZE def. ESP 4-1 (if Muguruza def. Pliskova, make it another 3-2 win, but one that never "feels" to be in true jeopardy)
...Spain's 1990's run of FC dominance, led by Arantxa Sanchez and current FC Captain Conchita Martinez, included five titles over an eight-year stretch in which the Spanish played in seven finals. In 2017, the Czechs are going for five wins in seven years. The last team to win FOUR straight FC titles? The U.S., with a seven-year title run from 1976-82, which now seems to have taken place in an alternate Fed Cup universe.
Germany at United States (Maui - HCO)
GER: Petkovic,Siegemund,Goerges,Witthoeft (Capt: Rittner)
USA: Vandeweghe,Riske,Rogers,Mattek-Sands (Capt: Rinaldi)...and the Rinaldi era begins for U.S. Fed Cup. It doesn't look to be quite the trial by fire it might have been had Angelique Kerber committed to play in this Hawaiian tie, but it's still no walk in the volcano park against the Germans. With the Sisters sitting out and Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens still coming back from injuries, Rinaldi didn't have any particularly "easy" choices beyond grabbing up CoCo Vandeweghe fresh off her AO semifinal run. But, unlike was the case with Mary Joe Fernandez at the reigns, the U.S. roster has some built-in flexibility with Bethanie Mattek-Sands around since, you know, if things go to the doubles there are actually multiple players on the squad who know what they're doing AND have actually met before the first team get-together heading into the weekend. That said, this tie looks to hinge on Vandeweghe, 1-3 in singles in her FC career. She'll likely feed off the energy of the moment, though, and having BMS (she and CoCo won the Indian Wells doubles last year) around should help if things go a bit crazy for her at some point, too. Shelby Rogers (off her upset of Simona Halep in Melbourne) and Alison Riske (AO 3rd Rd. and Shenzhen final already in '17) are a case of Rinaldi rightly going with the hot hands on a surface that suits them, though they're a combined 0-1 in FC singles play. If this tie was in Germany, and indoors, Andrea Petkovic & Co. might be the slight favorites, with a strong edge in FC experience (Petkovic and Julia Goerges are a combined 16-12 in singles, w/ Petko alone being 12-6) and a strong bench (though Laura Siegemund, 28, and Carina Witthoeft, 21, both have the same number of wins for Team Germany -- zero). Germany won the last FC meeting between these two by a 5-0 score in 2011, but that won't be happening here. But, hey... Maui.
PICK: USA def. GER 3-2
...even if CoCo goes 2-0, this thing could go to the doubles depending on how Rogers/Riske take to their first pressurized dips in FC waters. If it does, this one could get very interesting.
Netherlands at Belarus (Minsk - HCI)
NED: Bertens,Rus,Burger,Krajicek (Capt: Haarhuis)
BLR: Sasnovich,Sabalenka,Govortsova,Lapko (Capt: Dubrou)
...of all the 1st Round ties, this one carries decidedly less buzz than the rest. But, still, the Dutch arrive off their '16 semifinal run, one year after pulling off one of the biggest (well, probably THE biggest under the circumstances) upsets in Fed Cup history with a win in Moscow over the Russians. One of the key players on that weekend, Richel Hogenkamp, isn't in Minsk, but it won't likely matter. Kiki will be there, after all. Bertens is THE Fed Cup Queen without a crown, so far posting a 15-1 singles record, with six consecutive wins. Her last/only loss came in the '15 World Group Playoffs against (wait for it)... Anna Karolina Schmiedlova. Oh, Schmiedy. Behind her are the underrated FC force known as Arantxa Rus (15-7), as well as veteran Michaella Krajicek (10-9/7-4). Aside from veteran Olga Govortsova (20-10/5-2), the BLR team is trending young. With previous help from Vika Azarenka, it's worked well enough in the past to get the team into the World Group, with Aliaksandra Sasnovich (9-7/5-2) rising to the occasion in the red-and-green. 18-year olds Aryna Sabalenka and Vera Lapko have yet to play their maiden FC singles matches. The possibility exists of Sasnovich pulling off a win here, but in this tie the Dutch ARE the Russians, in a sense. If they lose it'll be one of the bigger FC upsets in recent memory. It doesn't seem possible... unless Sabalenka transforms into the Belarusian version of Viktorija Golubic. She's flown well under the radar over the past year, but the teenager IS ranked inside the Top 150 and has picked up two $50K challenger titles since May.
PICK: NED def. BLR 4-0
...3-0, 4-0, 5-0. Any seem possible here, unless maybe the Sabalenka Scenario comes about. The Dutch should be on their way back to the final four.
France at Switzerland (Geneva - HCI)
FRA: Mladenovic,Cornet,Parmentier (Capt: Noah)
SUI: Bacsinszky,Bencic,Golubic,Hingis (Capt: Gunthardt)...France's follow-up to the run to the 2016 final proceeds in '17 not only without pregnant Captain Amelie Mauresmo (the former slam champ & FC "rock star" is being replaced this season by an actual rock star & former slam winner in Yannick Noah), but, in one of the bigger it's-sort-of-slipped-through-the-cracks stories of the new year, also Caroline Garcia, who decided before the season to skip FC in '17 in order to focus on her singles. For this Geneva tie vs. the deep Swiss squad, the French were the only federation in World Group I or II play to announce a three-player team rather than a full four-woman squad. As of today, that doesn't seem to have changed... though it sure would be helpful if, say, someone such as Oceane Dodin was around to turn to in a time of need. Otherwise, Saint Petersburg champ Kristina Mladenovic (9-1 in doubles, but just 3-5 in singles) will be carrying an inordinate load on her shoulders, as Alize Cornet (at least in singles) has never been very dependable come FC time, posting a frightening 3-13 record in her career, and notably being the only of the Pastries who didn't seem to raise her game under the guiding hand of Mauresmo, who ultimately favored Garcia after she produced such good results. But maybe Noah will get a different result? If not, then Kiki will need to go 2-0 for France to have a shot here, or Pauline Parmentier (4-7) will be called upon to put up a big win. With a complete squad for the first time in ages, the Swiss sure have the look of a team capable of contending for its first Fed Cup title nineteen years after reaching the nation's only final in 1998. The leader of that team, Martina Hingis, is on this roster, bringing along her loads of experience (18-4/9-3, but just 0-2/1-1 since her return to the SUI team in '15) and undertaking on-court mentor role alongside Captain Heinz Gunthardt. Timea Bacsinszky (17-15) and Viktoriya Golubic (2-0 vs. the Czechs in FC last year!) top the Swiss team, joined by Belinda Bencic (6-1), who could be the piece that puts this team over the top in '17 if she can regain her form. She shined vs. the Pastries in her FC debut in '14, going 2-0 in singles in a tie that was won by France when Mladenovic & Cornet won the deciding doubles. In order to avoid that happening again, the Swiss must try to win this in the singles. Can they? And how much will Mauresmo's (and Garcia's, for that matter) absence both hurt Mladenovic's results and/or help Cornet's? So many questions are floating around Geneva as the weekend approaches, and (not surprisingly) Captain Mauresmo's name is involved in most of them even while she's absent from the sidelines.
PICK: SUI def. FRA 3-2
...not sure if this score is supposed to be a case of the Swiss winning a deciding doubles match, or if the "real" score is 3-1 with a dead rubber doubles match win by FRA making it look a little better. I'm just going with Switzerland, and thinking (w/ good health) that this squad might be the only thing standing in the way of a Czech Maiden four-peat come the fall.
LATE NOTE: Amandine Hesse has now been added to the French roster
*WORLD GROUP II*
Taiwan at Russia (Moscow - HCI)
TPE: Chang Kai-chan,Lee Ya-hsuan,Hsu Ching-wen,Chan Chin-wei (Capt: Wang Shi-ting)
RUS: Makarova,Vikhlyantseva,Blinkova,Kalinskaya (Capt: Myskina)...for the Hordettes, it's time to return to the scene of the crime. A year ago in Moscow, a seemingly-loaded Russian squad was taken down (hard) by the upstart Dutch in one of the biggest upsets in FC history (though Kiki Bertens' remarkable FC career, and her subsequent breakout season on tour in '16 eventually cast a new light on the events). The gang gets back together this weekend... well, not really, as the only returnees from last year's disaster are Captain Anastasia Myskina and Ekaterina Makarova, who opened the 1st Round tie with a loss to Bertens, starting the momentum ball rollin' down a steep hill. Makarova is the elder stateswoman on this squad, as her teammates -- Saint Petersburg semifinalist Natalia Vikhlyantseva, AO qualifier Anna Blinkova and '15 RG junior finalist Anna Kalinskaya -- are all making their FC debuts. Still, one would think the Russians wouldn't have any trouble in the first match-up with Taiwan since 1985 (when the Russians were still the Soviets), but the TPE squad's success was one of the stories of the FC season in '16, as the group reached World Group II for the first time and notched victories over Japan and Poland (though the latter team was two Radwanskas down). Hsu Ching-wen, 20, went 2-0 in that tie (prompting the brilliant Fed Cup Twitter "Hsu's That Girl?" headline), but comes to this tie well down the roster as far as experience goes. Chang Kai-chen (8-6) and Chan Chin-wei (14-11/7-7) will likely come into play if this tie is going to get sticky (again) for the Hordettes. And, though it's probably not likely, it could. If the Chan sisters were here, the Taiwanese team would have more of a safety net. Since they're not, this is going to take Chang or Hsu becoming a Golubic-like sudden star for an upset that would rival the one from last February to even be possible.
PICK: RUS def. TPE 3-0
...at least one of the singles matches might just go the distance, making the Russians sweat just a bit that history could be about to repeat itself. But it won't. Though it may be the teenagers who end up flying the blue, white & red flag the highest. Vikhlyantseva, Blinkova and the growing contingent of NextGen Hordettes (from Kasatkina on down to Zhuk and Potapova) might yet eventually bring back Russia's FC glory days. Myskina surely has to hope so, since there might be a few other Original Hordettes who could step in as Captain in a few years if this thing doesn't begin to work out.
Belgium at Romania (Bucharest - HCI)
BEL: Wickmayer,Flipkens,Mertens,Zanevska (Capt: Monami)
ROU: Begu,Niculescu,Cirstea,Tig (Capt: Nastase)...yes, that's right. Ilie Nastase is captaining the Swarmettes in Bucharest this weekend. If only Alexandra Dulgheru were around, things could get really crazy fast. Thing is, even without Simona Halep (which might actually be a good thing at the moment), the Romanians might have their hands full with the Waffles. Yanina Wickmayer (22-8) has been an underrated FC star for Belgium, and the hopes of Belgium will likely rest on her shoulders. Neither Elise Mertens nor newly-Belgian Marina Zanevska have a FC match win to their credit, while veteran Kirsten Flipkens (11-19/1-8) hasn't been at her best donning the Belgian colors. Monica Niculescu (15-9/14-9) and Sorana Cirstea (10-4) have fine FC histories, but Irina-Camelia Begu (4-5) is the highest-ranked Romanian on the squad. The home crowd should help tremendously, and aside from Halep most of Swarmettes seem to handle the pressure of playing at home fairly well. This one could be REALLY tight, though.
PICK: ROU def. BEL 3-2
...Romania had better win here, or all those FC title dreams might just drift away, never to return. The Swarmettes may have blown their best chance one year ago when they failed to take out the Czechs in the 1st Round despite leading 2-1 and with Niculescu taking Pliskova to a 3rd set in Match #4.
Australia at Ukraine (Kharkiv - HCI)
AUS: Gavrilova,Barty,Ar.Rodionova,Dellacqua (Capt: Molik)
UKR: Svitolina,Tsurenko,Savchuk,N.Kichenok (Capt: Filima)...an intriguing match-up, as the Aussies (sans Stosur) travel to Ukraine with a team led by a player (Dasha Gavrilova, in just her second tie) with zero FC wins to her name, backed up by another (Ash Barty) with one who hasn't played FC singles since 2013, and a third player (Arina Rodionova) whose only FC singles match was a 3-hour loss last year to Anna Karolina Schmiedlova (oh, Schmiedy). The player with the most experience on the AUS roster, Casey Dellacqua (6-5/10-4), likely won't see the court unless things go to deciding doubles. Meanwhile, this could be the weekend when Elina Svitolina's Ukrainian star begins its true ascent, a week after she won her fifth career title, and a little while (weeks? months?) before she may become the first player from her country to crack the Top 10. If she's to lead this (and the coming UKR wave of talent, including new AO girls champ Marta Kostyuk) through the FC forest, Svitolina's first step could be to carry the squad to a confidence-building win this weekend in front of a partisan crowd, probably the only time she'll get to play on home soil in quite some time. She's just 7-6 in FC singles play, but, as with everything about her career, Svitolina is about "the build." Lesia Tsurenko (9-9) will need to contribute, as well, because Ukraine does NOT want this tie to go to the doubles. While Olga Savchuk (17-4) has been great in that area over the years, having to face Barty/Dellacqua (who last played FC as a duo in the '14 SF) with the tie on the line might be a recipe for likely defeat. You never know how often Svitolina, as her singles career picks up more and more steam, is going to play FC, so advantage must be taken when she's around.
PICK: UKR def. AUS 3-1
...expect some three-setters in this one. In Australia, as long as Sam remained absent, the Aussies might be the favorites. But in Ukraine, the advantage shifts. But this one may be all about Svitolina.
Slovakia at Italy (Forli - RCO)
SVK: Cepelova,Sramkova,Hantuchova,AK.Schmiedlova (Capt: Liptak)
ITA: Errani,Schiavone,Paolini,Trevisan (Capt: Garbin)...once more, for old time's sake? That's what this tie may turn out to be, especially when you consider that the only time these two former FC title winning nations have met in Fed Cup play was back in 2002, when SVK prevailed 3-1 in the semifinals. Remarkably, two of the players who took part in that tie fifteen years ago -- Francesca Schiavone and Daniela Hantuchova -- are taking part in THIS one. In both their cases, this could very well be the last time we see them donning the colors in FC play. For Italy, in new Captain Tathiana Garbin's first tie, this could be the last stand of a once proud Fed Cup nation, as well. Two of the remaining Quartet members are here, but one has to wonder if Sara Errani (12-11/9-4) and Schiavone (22-20/4-1) can even COMBINE to put this tie on their shoulders and carry everyone to victory. Jasmine Paolini and Martina Trevisan are making their FC debuts here, and with it looking as if Camila Giorgi may never again play for Italy, the future doesn't look any better. A loss here, which would hurt so much more since it'd come at home on red clay, and the Italians could be in the Zone play in 2018, not to return to the big stages for quite a long time. For the Slovaks, Dominika Cibulkova isn't in Forli, but "giant killer" Jana Cepelova (hopefully healthy) is, along with newcomer Rebecca Sramkova and (oh, Schmiedy!) Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, who'll once again try to use Fed Cup to jump-start her season. In her truly awful '16 campaign, she won two of three FC singles matches, and is 5-2 in the last two years. She may be ranked #252, behind even the she-hardly-seems-still-active Hantuchova (#248), but AKS could end up being THE key player in this tie. She's beaten Errani once in two '15 matches, and took Schiavone to three sets in '14. Assuming she'll be in the singles lineup, which she SHOULD be no matter her current ranking, one win from her could ensure this one goes (at least) to the doubles, two and Italy might be down for the count.
PICK: SVK def. ITA 3-1
...nostalgia only goes so far. Cepelova, in good health, is the best player here. AKS, if her head is right, is right on her tail. Errani is 2-8 since the Olympics, and retired from her 2nd Round match in Melbourne. Team Italia is going to need each and every one of the fans in the stands to avoid a likely unfortunate fate.
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 - Americas (Metepec, MEX - HCO)
The Canadians are sporting a junior-heavy squad (with racket-flippers Bianca Andreesca and Charlotte Robillard-Millette), while the South American teams have the most experience.
PROMOTIONAL PLAYOFF PICK (1 advances): ARG def. CAN
Group I - Asia/Oceania (Astana, KAZ - HCI)The annual Shvedova/Kumkhum tilt should be coming any minute now. Usually, the Kazakh team underperforms come zone time, but Saint Petersburg finalist Yulia Putintseva is in Astana, (hopefully) ready to go if needed. That should make the difference.
PROMOTIONAL PLAYOFF PICK (1 advances): KAZ def. JPN
Group I - Europe/Africa (Tallinn, EST - HCI)The two best teams here are Great Britain (Konta, Watson, Robson & Rae) and Croatia (w/ Konjuh, Vekic & Jurak), who'll, naturally, face off in a promotional playoff if they win their respective pools. The Bracelet isn't playing for the Serbs, so forget about them. Looking around at the rosters, I'm intrigued by Bulgaria.
PROMOTIONAL PLAYOFF PICKS (2 advance): GBR def. CRO; BUL def. POL
Of course, I'll have a full wrap-up of the entire Fed Cup event in the regular weekly post following all the weekend action, as well as the full "Fed Cup Captain Threat Level Chart."
All for now.