Fed Cup Preview

Federation Cup, the national team competition in women’s tennis, tends to attract less attention than Davis Cup, the men’s equivalent. There’s no good reason for this, and this weekend’s first-round meetings offer plenty of intriguing matchups in charged atmospheres. Some of the best ties take place on the lower levels of the team hierarchy, in World Group II and the regional Zones.

World Group I

Serbia vs. Slovakia, in Nis, Serbia on indoor hard court

This tie always had the potential for unexpected developments, and if reports are true that Jelena Jankovic is unable to play (see “Injuries” below), Slovakia arguably become the favorites. (Thursday update): Both Jankovic and Ivanovic have withdrawn. Ivanovic cites a shoulder injury.

Both teams are led by top-20 players with a mixture of encouraging and disappointing recent results. Slovakian Dominika Cibulkova upset Petra Kvitova and Angelique Kerber to reach the Sydney final, but in that match she failed to win a single game from Agnieszka Radwanska and followed by losing to Valeria Savinykh in the second round of the Australian Open and Kiki Bertens in the second round of Paris. Serbian Ana Ivanovic reached the fourth round of the Australian Open, but lost in the first round of Pattaya to Ayumi Morita, and has lost to Cibulkova both times they have played.

It’s not clear who Slovakia will choose as its second singles player. Daniela Hantuchova is a former top-10 player, but has been playing poorly and is now ranked below Magdalena Rybarikova. Rybarikova has just the right kind of versatile all-court game to trouble Bojana Jovanovski, the likely stand-in for Jankovic on the Serbian team.

Prediction: Slovakia d. Serbia, 3-2

Czech Republic vs. Australia, in Ostrava on indoor hard court

With all the likely singles players on both teams starting the season poorly, this tie is harder to predict than the rankings would suggest. Many fans of Czech team leader Petra Kvitova hoped she would find form playing her first indoor tournament of the year last week in Paris, but instead she continued her erratic play and lost to Kristina Mladenovic in the quarterfinals. Lucie Safarova was no better in her quarterfinal loss to Kiki Bertens at the same tournament.

Sam Stosur had another dismal start to the season at home in Australia, but may be more comfortable playing on foreign soil. On the other hand, she struggles against left-handers, and has poor records against both Kvitova and Safarova. Jarmila Gajdosova has started her season with mixed results, but may be a better option for Australia in singles than the higher-ranked Casey Dellacqua, who had a great 2012 season but has started this year 0-3.

Australia has the players and the weapons to upset the defending champions, but ultimately I can’t convince myself it’s likely. Kvitova and Safarova match up well against the Australian players, and with home-court advantage are likely to find ways to win, even if the matches aren’t pretty.

Prediction: Czech Republic d. Australia, 4-1

Italy vs. United States, in Rimini on indoor clay

In a changing of the guard, Italy has to do without former Fed Cup stars Francesca Schiavone and injured Flavia Pennetta, and instead has to rely on Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, whose role on the team had previously been mostly limited to doubles. The way Errani and Vinci have played recently, though, that’s not a problem, especially with the Italians playing at home on clay.

A depleted American team will put up a fight, likely with little success. Team leader Varvara Lepchenko is very comfortable on clay, but has not played well to start the season. Jamie Hampton and Melanie Oudin have had limited success on clay. If Hampton plays, it will be her first match since suffering a painful flareup of a chronic back injury at the Australian Open, and her very first appearance in Fed Cup.

Prediction: Italy d. United States, 4-1

Russia vs. Japan, in Moscow on indoor hard court

Japan is led by two players who have been playing well—Ayumi Morita and Kimiko Date-Krumm—but are likely to be overpowered by a deeper Russian team who have been racking up even bigger accomplishments. Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev can choose from Pattaya champion Maria Kirilenko, Hobart champion Elena Vesnina, Australian Open quarterfinalist Ekaterina Makarova, and Brisbane finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

Prediction: Russia d. Japan, 4-1

World Group II

Unlike Davis Cup, Fed Cup divides its elite World Group into two tiers. In April, winners of the first round ties in World Group II play first-round losers from World Group I, with the winners of those play-offs playing in World Group I the following year.

France vs. Germany, in Limoges on indoor clay

The complexion of this tie has changed completely since France chose the venue and surface. Since then, Angelique Kerber injured her back at the Australian Open, leaving Germany without its top player. And Marion Bartoli resolved a longstanding dispute over coaching arrangements with new team captain Amelie Mauresmo, so will play for France. The result is that France unexpectedly has the strongest team by ranking, but the surface they chose favors Germany’s new top player, Julia Goerges. The high bounces and still air on an indoor clay court help Goerges line up her long strokes.

The teams’ supporting casts are intriguing as well. On the French side, Alizé Cornet has been playing well lately, but still shows mental fragility in big matches, a problem that has plagued her particularly in Fed Cup. Kristina Mladenovic had a breakout performance to reach the Paris semifinals last week, but like Bartoli her game is not well suited to clay. Virginie Razzano is a veteran and former top-20 player who is at home on clay, but has been plagued by injuries and inconsistency. She famously upset Serena Williams at Roland Garros last year, but just two weeks ago lost in straight sets to #248 Ana Vrljic.

Germany’s second singles player is likely to be Sabine Lisicki, who reached her first final in a year and a half in Pattaya last week, but is still working to patch up weaknesses in her powerful game. Her backhand was a liability in the Pattaya final, and her first-strike style isn’t well suited to red clay. Teenager Annika Beck’s game is better suited to the surface, but she has struggled so far to string wins together at the WTA tour level. Doubles specialist Anna-Lena Groenefeld is the only player in the whole tie who won’t have to adjust rapidly to a new surface—everyone else played a tournament on fast hard courts just last week.

Prediction: Germany d. France, 3-2

Switzerland vs. Belgium, in Bern on indoor clay

Led by Yanina Wickmayer and Kirsten Flipkens, Belgium has the stronger team. Flipkens has been playing particularly well lately. But the surface favors the Swiss, especially counterpuncher Stefanie Voegele, who has also been playing well. The other player likely to play singles for Switzerland is Romina Oprandi, who is a picture of inconsistency. She has a tricky, versatile game and is capable of giant-killing upsets, but also is capable of quietly losing to almost anyone.

Prediction: Belgium d. Switzerland, 3-2

Spain vs. Ukraine, in Alicante, Spain on clay

Two of Spain’s best players, Carla Suarez Navarro and Anabel Medina Garrigues, have chosen not to play. However, Spain still has the deepest team, led by clay-court veterans Lourdes Dominguez Lino, Silvia Soler-Espinosa, and doubles specialist Nuria Llagostera Vives. Ukraine is led by Lesia Tsurenko, who is having a breakout year and also has a game well suited to clay. But it’s unlikely Tsurenko will get enough support from teenager Elina Svitolina or journeywomen Yuliya Beygelzimer and Olga Savchuk.

Prediction: Spain d. Ukraine, 4-1

Argentina vs. Sweden, in Buenos Aires on clay

Argentina has a competent team led by promising 20-year-old Paula Ormaechea. But Sweden has more experience against a higher level of competition, having beaten strong teams from Poland and Great Britain to earn promotion to this group last year. Sofia Arvidsson and Johanna Larsson play doubles together frequently and have a history of rising to the occasion in Fed Cup. Larsson in particular has been playing well lately, and her comfort on clay limits Argentina’s home-court advantage.

Prediction: Sweden d. Argentina, 4-1

Europe/Africa Zone Group I

Zonal ties, played by teams in Fed Cup and Davis Cup that have been too weak the previous year to qualify for the World Group(s), don’t get a lot of global attention. But with star players and rising prospects from a growing number of countries, the zone competitions can be surprisingly intriguing, and the Europe/Africa Zone is the most complex and competitive. All the teams gather in February for a round robin tournament at a single location—this year in Eilat, Israel on hard courts—to set the stage for play-off ties in April that determine who advances to World Group II.

This year’s draw means the most interesting action is likely to occur in Pool C. Led by the Radwanska sisters, Poland should advance, but it won’t be easy. The pool also features a strong Romanian team led by Sorana Cirstea, Simona Halep, and Irina Begu. (Wednesday update): Never mind. Halep and Begu are not on the team after all. Host Israel is also a threat, led by former top-20 player Shahar Peer and Julia Glushko.

Pool D could be very competitive as well. Netherlands is the strongest team on paper, but Kiki Bertens may not recover in time from the back injury she suffered in Paris, and it may fall to the matchup-sensitive Arantxa Rus and the inconsistent Bibiane Schoofs to carry the team. (Wednesday update): Bertens did indeed withdraw. Bulgaria is led by the dangerous Tsvetana Pironkova, and could advance if Dia Evtimova or Elitsa Kostova can contribute an upset or two.

Great Britain is likely to advance from Pool B with a deep team featuring Heather Watson, Laura Robson, Anne Keothavong and Johanna Konta. But Hungary could make things interesting with savvy veteran Greta Arn and promising 19-year-old Timea Babos. Led by the dangerous but inconsistent Michelle Larcher de Brito, Portugal could make some noise as well.

Pool A is difficult to predict. With Victoria Azarenka not playing, Olga Govortsova of Belarus is arguably the best player in the pool, but has a weak supporting cast. (Wednesday ipdate): Govortsova isn’t playing either. Croatia has a promising but unproven team, led by Donna Vekic and Australian Open girls’ champion Ana Konjuh. Austria also has a real chance, led by veteran journeywomen Yvonne Meusburger and Patricia Mayr-Achleitner.

The winner of Pool C plays the winner of Pool A for the chance to play for promotion in April, and the winner of Pool D plays the winner of Pool B. Poland and Great Britain are the best bets to make the play-offs.

ATP Upsets So Far This Week

After starting the season by losing four straight matches to opponents ranked outside the top 100, Ivo Karlovic won his first-round match in his home tournament of Zagreb, upsetting seventh seed Grigor Dimitrov, 7-6(3) 7-6(3).

Also, Sergiy Stakhovsky upset ninth seed Paul-Henri Mathieu, 6-4 6-4 in Montpellier.

Injuries

As I write this, Jelena Jankovic remains on the official Serbian team list for this weekend’s Fed Cup tie, but a Serbian press report (Google translation here) says she won’t play. Presumably she has not recovered from the abdominal injury that caused her to withdraw from doubles at the Australian Open. (Wednesday update): Jankovic has now officially withdrawn. The report suggests Ana Ivanovic might also withdraw.

Sloane Stephens has withdrawn with an abdominal injury from this weekend’s Fed Cup tie against Italy. Stephens didn’t play last year after the US Open due to an abdominal muscle tear so severe it caused internal bleeding.

Polona Hercog won’t play Fed Cup either, due to an ongoing wrist injury. Aside from one match at the Australian Open, Hercog hasn’t played since early October.

Tomas Berdych withdrew from Montpellier, citing a left wrist injury.

Lukas Kubot withdrew from Zagreb with an ankle injury.

Qualifier Michael Berrer retired from his first-round match against Somdev Devvarman in Zagreb, trailing 6-0 6-7(6) 1-4, citing “general fatigue”.

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