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Across Four Continents: Fed Cup World Group Preview

Feb 7th 2014

A week after Davis Cup action began its 2014 odyssey, Fed Cup opens with World Group I quarterfinals and World Group II ties spanning four continents.  Read about what to expect from each tie.

Madison Keys

USA vs. Italy:  Attrition has thinned the ranks on both sides with an impartial evenness.  The United States will lack its top two singles players in world No. 1 Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens, while Italy will lack its top two singles players in top-15 women Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci.  Those two Italians also lead the doubles rankings, which could bode ill for their team if the tie hinges on a decisive doubles rubber.  On the other hand, doubles specialist Liezel Huber will not appear in Cleveland either.

So who’s left?  Actually, some talented and engaging youngsters.  Many onlookers believe that American women’s tennis has a bright future, and three reasons for that optimism will appear in this tie.  Indoor hard courts tend to reward heavy servers, so Team USA should feel confident behind Madison Keys as its singles No. 1.  She started her 2014 campaign in fine form with a Sydney semifinal surge that included a victory over Simona Halep, also off to a strong start this year.  Rather than the 46th-ranked Alison Riske, captain Mary Joe Fernandez surprisingly chose the struggling Christina McHale as her singles No. 2.  McHale’s steady counterpunching may fit the court in Cleveland less smoothly than Riske’s imposing serve, and she has won consecutive matches just twice since last April.  Her greatest advantage over Riske lies in her experience, not to be discounted in the pressure of playing for her country.

Italy usually calls to mind dirt devils like Errani and Vinci, ready to grind through matches tirelessly but not blessed with first-strike power.  That stereotype might crumble if Camila Giorgi continues her ascent after a breakthrough at the US Open last summer.  There, Giorgi upset former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki en route to the second week.  But she lacks any middle range between the devastating and the disastrous, imploding at the Australian Open with over 70 unforced errors.  Italy will rely for its anchor on the 26-year-old Karin Knapp, a native of the mountainous Tyrol region in the nation’s northeast corner.  Fans who watched the Australian Open may remember her resilience in a losing effort against Maria Sharapova that spanned three and a half hours, but her best recent result on a big stage came in a second-week appearance at Wimbledon last year.

This tie could produce plenty of quality tennis as well as momentum shifts and intriguing clashes of personalities that will make you forget about the lack of star power.  Every match could be competitive, for no woman is a clear favorite in any of them.

Pick:  USA

Carla Suarez Navarro

Spain vs. Czech Republic:  A certain set of microbes may have shaped the outcome of this tie more deeply than anyone would want to admit.  Sidelined by a respiratory infection, Petra Kvitova has performed with greater reliability under her national colors than she often does in individual competition.  (Parallels emerge with her countryman, Tomas Berdych.)  With Lucie Safarova nominated only for doubles, the Czechs will rely in singles on two journeywomen whose names begin with Z.  Doubles specialist Andrea Hlavackova, a three-time major champion, should give them an edge if the tie hinges on the fifth rubber.

But it will be hard for the Czechs to reach that stage.  Neither Klara Zakopalova nor Barbora Zahlavova Strycova has distinguished herself on clay with much consistency.  Meanwhile, Spain fields the best player on either team in world No. 17 Carla Suarez Navarro.  She has earned success on hard courts as well, such as a US Open quarterfinal last fall, but Suarez Navarro remains most effective on clay, where she reached two finals in 2013.  One surely can count on her to deliver two rubbers and place the pressure on the Czechs, favored in doubles, to win the two singles rubbers in which she does not participate.  Spanish singles No. 2 Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor does not pose a daunting challenge and in fact ranks well below Zakopalova.  Her clash with Zahlavova Strycova in the fourth rubber could decide this tie and should be tightly contested with the two women separated by just three places in the rankings.  In such an even matchup, one should favor the home team and the player with a greater affinity for the surface.

Expect plenty of long rallies throughout this tie and point construction that hovers on the line between patience and passivity. 

Pick:  Spain

Angelique Kerber

Slovakia vs. Germany:  Here at last is a tie in which both teams arrive more or less at full strength.  While Sabine Lisicki could not compete for Germany, the visitors wield plenty of weapons in a group spearheaded by world No. 9 Angelique Kerber.  The only top-10 player to participate in World Group action this weekend, Kerber has not always found her best tennis when competing for her country.  Her 2014 campaign has begun with reasonably encouraging results, however, including a second-week appearance in Melbourne after a runner-up showing in Sydney. 

On the other hand, Kerber’s last three losses have come against opponents ranked much lower than her, which poses some cause for concern.  Germany thus may need assistance from singles No. 2 Andrea Petkovic or alternate Julia Goerges, the second of whom brings momentum from a semifinal in Pattaya City a week ago.  The higher-ranked Petkovic has succeeded in staying healthy over the last several months, which has allowed her to find some rhythm on the court but not enough to recapture her former heights.  Doubles No. 14 Anna-Lena Groenefeld complements this balanced squad.

Across the net, Slovakia will lean on Dominika Cibulkova and Daniela Hantuchova to continue a partnership that resembles what Berdych and Radek Stepanek have achieved for the Czech Republic in Davis Cup.  Those two women have committed themselves regularly to Fed Cup with 45 ties played between them.  Cibulkova has not entered the court since reaching her first major final at the Australian Open, but a raucous Slovakian crowd might be the best possible antidote for a hangover.  She lost to Kerber last month, though, which is worth noting ahead of their Sunday meeting.  Age has depleted Hantuchova’s shot-making skills, which always required an excruciating degree of precision.  Her most valuable contribution might come in doubles, the format where she now shines the most.

Pick:  Slovakia

Samantha Stosur

Australia vs. Russia:  While perhaps not loaded with marquee names, each of the first three ties could provide compelling entertainment.  One could make a strong argument for either team to prevail in any of those matchups, and most of the individual rubbers also could be tightly contested.  This is emphatically not the case with this mismatch of the weekend.  Home-court advantage belongs to Australia, but that is the least of the factors in their favor.

To be sure, Samantha Stosur has sunk into what might be an irreversible decline, and Casey Dellacqua has not accomplished much in singles outside two stirring runs at her home major.  But either of them remains far superior to the journeywomen whom first-time Fed Cup captain Anastasia Myskina will field.  A former Roland Garros champion, Myskina might need to resist the urge of grabbing a racquet and striding onto the court herself.  The 241st-ranked Irina Khromacheva and the 650th-ranked Veronika Kudermetova simply inhabit a different register of the sport from Stosur and even Dellacqua.  In fact, neither has ever played a main-draw match at a WTA tournament.  Choosing this pair ahead of world No. 158 Victoria Kan and world No. 259 Valeria Solovyeva came as a mild surprise, but Australia would be heavily favored against that duo as well.

A similar debacle befell Russia in last year’s Fed Cup final, when none of its many talented women committed to play.  This time, it likely will cost this tennis superpower its seat at the main table, something that seemed impossible during the mid-2000s.  Although Russia already has fallen into Davis Cup zonal play, its men always lagged well behind its women.  Relegation in Fed Cup would come as a much greater shock, but it is nearly certain if its players continue to abandon the competition en masse.

Pick:  Australia

Eugenie Bouchard

World Group II previews in brief:

Canada vs. Serbia:  This isn’t the deeply talented, deeply divided Serbian team led—if that is the word—by former No. 1s Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic.  Not even the slumping Bojana Jovanovski will appear on a Serbian team that fields no woman in the top 100.  Expect teenage prodigy and Australian Open semifinalist Eugenie Bouchard to lead Canada comfortably past this former Fed Cup power.

Sweden vs. Poland:  World No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska eyes the final stages of her mission to bring Poland into contention for the Fed Cup.  Still, Radwanska cannot quite overcome a heavy-hitting but erratic Swedish team by herself.  Johanna Larsson and Sofia Arvidsson should embrace the indoor hard courts, and Radwanska has next to no supporting cast outside top-50 doubles player Alicja Rosolska.  This tie should come down to the doubles rubber, and that is very hard to call.

France vs. Switzerland:  Alize Cornet spent nearly 12 hours on court in Paris this month during a dramatic semifinal run.  She returns to the same stadium leading her nation against a squad that includes junior No. 1 Belinda Bencic.  All of the pressure is on France as favorites playing at home, and pressure often has caused Cornet to crumble.  Singles No. 2 Virginie Razzano has shone in Paris before, as Serena Williams knows, and captain Amelie Mauresmo should get the most from her enigmatic team.

Argentina vs. Japan:  Few Fed Cup nations are further apart or more culturally disparate than the two halves of this clash.  The clay surface should play a pivotal role, for the Argentines make their living on it, while the Japanese rarely play on it.  If not for that factor, Japan’s superior depth in singles with Kurumi Nara and Misaki Doi might hand the visitors an edge.  But Argentine singles No. 2 Maria Irigoyen has notched key wins in Fed Cup before, so she might perform above her ranking.