Thursday, April 15, 2021

BJK Cup Playoff Round Preview

It's been so long since a Fed Cup match was played that it's not even called "Fed Cup" anymore. So for the first time in over a year, it's time to crack open a new can of team competition (aka The Billie Jean King Cup)...

With the qualifying round match-ups that set the field for the event finals having taken place in February of last year, the continuation of the 2020 2020-21 BJK Cup -- the 12-team, week-long final in Budapest, originally scheduled for last and then this spring, has been been postponed until later in the year -- will take place this weekend at various host sites around the globe. In the eight match-ups, the qualifying round losers face off with the zone winners, with the resulting winners moving into the '22 Qualifying Round and the losers returning to zone play next year.

While this stretched-out schedule has, of course, been instituted because of the year-long COVID-19 pandemic I personally sort of like how things have inadvertently been spaced out. If things had gone off as planned (2.0), this week's eight Playoff match-ups would be taking place at the same time as the 12-team round robin finals, which ultimately would produce four semifinalist nations to battle it out in a traditional bracket format for the title over the weekend. It's just too much at once.

Maybe the new format works *better* as a two-year procedure, with a team champion being declared every *other* year rather than each season... preferably in the space between Olympic years (of course, even that has been upended, as last year's cancelled Games are set to be completed *this* year, though they'll still be dubbed the "2020 Tokyo Olympics"... with only Japanese fans in attendance later this summer). I know it won't happen, but I know *I'd* like to see a champion coming in 2021, then again in 2023, '25 and so on. It'd give the event a bit more space to breathe as well as a more *special* feel rather than serving as a yearly rite... or maybe I should say exhausting "ritual."

Anyway, I'm just sayin'.

A look at the Friday/Saturday Playoff match-ups, and some predictions (Note: rosters as of day/hour of post, though we *know* some things will change)...


Brazil at Poland (HCI)
BRA: Ce,Pigossi,Alves,Stefani (C:Roberta Burzagli)
POL: Frech,U.Radwanska,Kawa,Falkowska,Kania-Chodun (C:Dawid Celt)
...Magda Linette was listed as the top roster player until the actual day of pairings were announced, but the Pole is coming off injury (1-3 in '21) and just suffered an early-round loss in Charleston. Poland is probably better off without her. Magdalena Frech, coming off a qualifying run (and 1r victory) in Charleston, assumes the #1 singles spot, while Urszula Radwanska (1-1 in ITF finals) fills the #2. No matter who plays for Poland (youngster Weronika Falkowska waits in the wings), though, the indoor hard court surface would (traditionally, at least) seem to work against the visiting Brazilian squad.
...if Radwanska plays as scheduled, it'll be her first appearance for Team Poland since 2015 (her sister Aga is the nation's all-time competition leader in singles and total match wins)

Mexico at Great Britain (HCO)
MEX: Zacarias,Olmos,Contreras,Garcia (C:Agustin Moreno)
GBR: Watson,Boulter,Dart,Burrage,Swan,Raducanu (C:Anne Keothavong)
...even without Johanna Konta aboard, the deep (though mostly young) British roster should be enough to pull Team GB through on home hard court. If Heather Watson stumbles, though, things *could* get sticky, and having Giuliana Olmos on hand for a potential doubles match could prove to be key for Mexico. Olmos is also being listed for two singles matches.
...Watson is pushed, but comes through in the end (maybe in three sets on Day 2?), combining with a Boulter win to avoid a deciding doubles match

Japan at Ukraine (RCO)
JPN: Naito,Muramatsu,Akita,Sato (C:Toshihisa Tsuchihashi)
UKR: Svitolina,Kostyuk,Zavatska,N.Nichenok,L.Kichenok (C:Mikhail Filima)
...a seeming mistmatch, as the *entire* Japanese roster has combined for *zero* appearances in FC/BJK action.
...every member of the UKR team has multiple match wins, with Svitolina likely set to move within arm's length of another national tennis record (a 2-0 mark would get her to 14 BJK singles wins, just three behind all-time UKR leader Elena Tatarkova)

Italy at Romania (HCI)
ITA: Trevisan,Paolini,Cocciaretto,Gatto Monticone,B.Turati (C:Tathiana Garbin)
ROU: Tig,Bara,Buzarnescu,Niculescu,Ruse (C:Monica Niculescu)
...Simona Halep pulled out of this tie, but the home court advantage remains. The Italians, as is their way, will put up a fight with a roster sans any of the Quartet that put the team on the mark (nor top-ranked Italian Camila Giorgi). Halep would have given the Swarmettes a *decided* edge, but things could now be close with the "B"-team.
PICK: ROU 3-2 (dd)
...all-time ROU wins (31 overall/16 wd), ties and years of service leader Monica Niculescu is serving as captain this weekend, and may end up having to call upon herself to pull this out

Canada at Serbia (HCI)
CAN: Fernandez,Marino,Zhao,Fichman (C:Heidi El Tabakh)
SRB: Stojanovic,Danilovic,Krunic,Jorovic,Radivojevic (C:Dusan Vemic) Andreescu (or Bouchard) here, so Leylah Fernandez takes on the pressure as the lead singles star. The Monterrey champ upset Belinda Bencic in last year's qualifiers and will likely need to produce two wins to give Canada the slack necessary to put the team in position for a real run in the *next* BJK competition (hopefully w/ at least one of her aforementioned countrywoman on the roster). Of course, the elephant in the room here is Serbia's good luck charm herself, Aleksandra Krunic. The Bracelet could provide a key singles win, or take the lead in a deciding doubles match.
PICK: SRB 3-2 (dd) it plays out remains to be seen, but I'll go with Krunic (whose FC debut came now 12 years ago) doing *something* to help push the Bracelettes ahead of the Canadians by a nose

India at Latvia (HCI)
IND: Raina,Bhosale,Desai,Thandi,Mirza (C:Vishal Uppal)
LAT: Sevastova,Ostapenko,Marcinkevica,Vismane,Spaka (C:Adrians Zguns)
...Sevastova and Ostapenko are probably the least talked about *great* 1-2 punch in current FC/BJK play. They've combined for 34 singles wins (a team record 17 each, w/ Ostapenko holding the LAT stardard of 31 total wins), and even pushed a Serena/Sofia-led U.S. squad to the doubles in the qualifiers.
...this one shouldn't be close, but the historic footnote of Mirza playing alongside a roster-full of players from a generation of Indian women she likely greatly inspired to pick up a racket is substantial

Kazakhstan at Argentina (RCO)
KAS: Rybakina,Putintseva,Diyas,Danilina,Shvedova (C:Yaroslava Shvedova)
ARG: Podoroska,Carle,Bosio,Naya,Orteni (C:Mercedes Paz)
...Argentina has home court, a likely surface advantage, and Nadia Podoroska (who made her mark in FC play long before her RG semifinal run last year). But the Kazakhs have long been a "sleeping giant" in this competition, and come into this tie with a rare full roster (though the participation of the debuting Rybakina, coming off an injury in Charleston, remains to be seen). Putintseva has blown a handful of matches this year after holding MP, and has a history of eyebrow-raising losses (or near-defeats) on her FC ledger. But still...
...being the only tie taking place on the North or South American continents, the final lineups haven't yet been announced as of this posting, so we'll have to see if Rybakina is being counted on at all (or even part of the roster come Friday). Either way, Yaroslava Shvedova, also serving as captain, could see action for the first time since 2017. If she does, it could mean this one has gone to the deciding doubles and *another* shocking KAZ loss might be at hand.

China at Netherlands (RCI)
CHN: Zhang Shuai,Zheng Saisai,Wang Xinyu,Wang Xiyu,Xu Yifan (C:Liu Shuo)
NED: Bertens,Rus,Pattinama Kerkhove,Schuurs (C:Paul Haarhuis)
...quite possibly the hardest call of the weekend, mostly because of one player. Kiki Bertens has been a FC beast over the course of her career, compiling a 20-2 singles mark for NED. In the February '20 qualifiers, in her first action since '17 (the year after leading the team's Cinderella run to the semis), Bertens went 2-0 vs. Sabalenka and Sasnovich, though BLR ultimately won the doubles to advance to the Budapest finals event. Now, Bertens is back for more, but offseason Achilles surgery delayed her '21 start and she's yet to win a match (0-3). While singles #2 Arantxa Rus is a reliable dark horse in tour play, she's lost six straight singles matches in FC action. Her last win was in 2015. Meanwhile, China has been a perpetual underachiever in this competition, but this time around sports a roster that includes the nation's Top 2 (Zhang and Zheng), its two PDQ stars (the Wangs) and a veteran doubles specialist (Xu) for good measure.
PICK: NED 3-2 (dd)
...there's always one big "upset," or something resembling it, on FC BJK weekend, and I was going to go with China here. But, holding to form, even with a roster featuring the nation's two highest-ranked players, neither Zhang nor Zheng are scheduled to play singles. Still, I'll go with flashes from the young Wangs, and some "iffy" play from the Dutch vets, to force things to the doubles. Zhang/Zheng have been penciled in for that duty. But, being the Chinese team, they'd probably still be spectators if it comes to that.

*2020-21 BJK CUP FINAL NATIONS - 12*
Australia (2019 final)
Belarus (qualifier)
Belgium (qualifier)
Czech Republic (wild card)
France (2019 champion)
Germany (qualifier)
Hungary (host nation)
Russia (qualifier)
Slovakia (qualifier)
Spain (qualifier)
Switzerland (qualifier)
United States (qualifier)
NOTE: winner, runner-up, wild card and host nation automatically in '22 Finals

1963 United States def. Australia 2-1
1964 Australia def. United States 2-1
1965 Australia def. United States 2-1
1966 United States def. West Germany 3-0
1967 United States def. Great Britain 2-0
1968 Australia def. Netherlands 3-0
1969 United States def. Australia 2-1
1970 Australia def. West Germany 3-0
1971 Australia def. Great Britain 3-0
1972 South Africa def. Great Britain 2-1
1973 Australia def. South Africa 3-0
1974 Australia def. United States 2-1
1975 Czechoslovakia def. Australia 3-0
1976 United States def. Australia 2-1
1977 United States def. Australia 2-1
1978 United States def. Australia 2-1
1979 United States def. Australia 3-0
1980 United States def. Australia 3-0
1981 United States def. Great Britain 3-0
1982 United States def. West Germany 3-0
1983 Czechoslovakia def. West Germany 2-1
1984 Czechoslovakia def. Australia 2-1
1985 Czechoslovakia def. United States 2-1
1986 United States def. Czechoslovakia 3-0
1987 West Germany def. United States 2-1
1988 Czechoslovakia def. USSR 2-1
1989 United States def. Spain 3-0
1990 United States def. USSR 2-1
1991 Spain def. United States 2-1
1992 Germany def. Spain 2-1
1993 Spain def. Australia 3-0
1994 Spain def. United States 3-0
1995 Spain def. United States 3-2
1996 United States def. Spain 5-0
1997 France def. Netherlands 4-1
1998 Spain def. Switzerland 3-2
1999 United States def. Russia 4-1
2000 United States def. Spain 5-0
2001 Belgium def. Russia 2-1
2002 Slovak Republic def. Spain 3-1
2003 France def. United States 4-1
2004 Russia def. France 3-2
2005 Russia def. France 3-2
2006 Italy def. Belgium 3-2
2007 Russia def. Italy 4-0
2008 Russia def. Spain 4-0
2009 Italy def. United States 4-0
2010 Italy def. United States 3-1
2011 Czech Republic def. Russia 3-2
2012 Czech Republic def. Serbia 3-1
2013 Italy def. Russia 4-0
2014 Czech Republic def. Germany 3-1
2015 Czech Republic def. Russia 3-2
2016 Czech Republic def. France 3-2
2017 United States def. Belarus 3-2
2018 Czech Republic def. United States 3-0
2019 France def. Australia 3-2
18 - United States
11 - Czech Republic/Czechoslovakia
7 - Australia
5 - Spain
4 - Italy
4 - Russia
3 - France
2 - West Germany/Germany
2 - Slovakia
1 - Belgium
1 - South Africa

All for now.


Blogger colt13 said...

I'm excited for this, not many easy picks.

Indian Wells trying to pick up October slot.

French Open entry list is out. Already? Strycova the only name out, while Yastremska and Suarez Navarro are in for now. Last in? Tauson at 101.

Vesnina, Jorovic, Stosur and Petkovic in with SR.

Yes, Petkovic needs one, as her real ranking leaves her 2 out.

Kuzmova and Pironkova in Q.

Now onto the picks.

MIP(Most Important Person)- Frech
Stefani is the best player in this tie, but is negated by doubles going last. No Top 100 player in singles on either side, and the highest in Kawa, isn't listed. Poland as long as Frech handles the pressure.

MIP- Fernandez
Fernandez is the best player in this tie, but Stojanovic is having the best season. With Zhao coming back from an 18 month break, both her and Fichman are probably doubles only, so Serbia gets the nod.

MIP- Svitolina
This was Japan's tie, but moved due to pandemic concerns. Svitolina just has to hold serve(literally). Japan is outmanned, though Naito's ITF results show that she earned this. However, she hasn't had a Top 100 win in very few opportunities. Ukraine wins steady.

MIP- Watson
This is the one sided tie. If Watson does as expected, Burrage, Swan, Dart or Raducanu will be playing the dead doubles rubber. Mexico doesn't have a Top 250 player without Zarazua, so Great Britain in a romp.

MIP- Sevastova
Sevastova gets the #1 slot over seemingly overmatched India. Ostapenko going off the rails might make it close, but even with Mirza in doubles, Latvia takes it.

MIP- Bara
This tie is nuts! For some reason, this is on hard, which wouldn't have mattered with Halep. Now you have 8 players ranked between 99-173, and Romania with a #2 in Buzarnescu that has struggled in BJK Cup play. The tie most likely to have players replaced, might it come down to playing captain Niculescu? Romania in a squeaker.

MIP- Bertens
Bertens has the pedigree. She also has no wins this year. In a shock, the highest ranked Chinese women in Zhang and Zheng get benched, but would make a good doubles team in a decider. The next twist is Xiyu getting the top slot over Xinyu. Risky, but Xinyu plays Bertens first. If she pulls off the upset, Zhang or Zheng will play on day 2. Picking China, but this is the pick that I am least confident.

MIP- Rybakina
Matchups not listed at press time. Everybody is slumping for KAZ, but Argentina's roster is the weakest outside of Mexico. Unclear if Podoroska is 100% healthy, but Shvedova should be able to mix and match her way to a win. Ego aside, if Shvedova is playing anything other that a dead doubles rubber, something has gone horribly wrong. Kazakhstan with a routine win.

Thu Apr 15, 10:31:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Still think they should go the Davis Cup route and play doubles #3.

I had CHN and then had to change it when the lineups came out. China *always* does this. Not sure why. Although at least now they have promising young players to sub into singles.

I was surprised that Rybakina *is* listed as playing. But, you know, that could change come match time.

Thu Apr 15, 10:01:00 PM EDT  

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