It’s Fed Cup time again, and time I got back to blogging. I have a few more posts in the pipeline, so watch this space.
Here are my predictions for this weekend:
World Group Semifinals
Czech Republic at Italy (Palermo) on clay
Saturday singles matches: Safarova vs. Errani; Kvitova vs. Vinci
Doubles: Hlavackova/Hradecka vs. Pennetta/Schiavone
These two teams also met in the semifinals in 2010 and 2012. Both times the home team won, and went on to win the title. Both teams have fielded essentially the same players each time, the only difference from this year’s squads being the Czechs’ substitution of doubles specialist Kveta Peschke for Andrea Hlavackova in 2010. However, the team hierarchies have turned upside down in the last three years. When the two teams met in 2010, Petra Kvitova was not yet a star player, and Lucie Hradecka was the only Czech to play two singles rubbers. Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone played all the live singles rubbers for Italy.
This year, the rivals meet again, with the home crowd and the outdoor clay surface favoring the Italians. With Schiavone aging and Pennetta still working her way back to form after wrist surgery, Italy will depend primarily on #7 Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, who is at her career-high ranking of #12.
Czech Republic is led by Petra Kvitova, who showed flashes of her 2011 form last week in her first clay-court outing this year, reaching the final in Katowice. There her flame flickered, though, and she fell to Vinci’s inspired craft in straight sets. Like Kvitova, Lucie Safarova is a left-hander with the raw ability to overpower any of the Italians. Safarova is even less consistent than Kvitova, but has risen to the occasion to win her last four Fed Cup matches, all in straight sets, against formidable opponents Sam Stosur, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, and Schiavone. Clay is not the Czech players’ favorite surface, but all of them are competent on it.
Italy also has a history of playing well in Fed Cup, especially on home soil. This weekend will be Errani’s and Vinci’s chance to prove they can extend that legacy as team leaders against top-level opposition. The tie will be won by the team that reacts better to the pressure and plays closest to its potential.
Prediction: Italy d. Czech Republic, 3–2
Slovakia at Russia (Moscow) on indoor clay
Saturday singles matches: Cibulkova vs. Pavlyuchenkova; Hantuchova vs. Kirilenko
Doubles: Rybarikova/Cepelova vs. Makarova/Vesnina
The other semifinal is loaded with complicated and intriguing matchups and possibilities. Russia’s decision to play on clay is puzzling, as it arguably gives the Slovakians an edge.
Slovakia will count on Dominika Cibulkova to get them off to a good start against the powerful but inconsistent Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. In her last Fed Cup appearance in February, Cibulkova cramped so badly serving for what would have been a straight-sets victory over Vesna Dolonc that she had to retire and was carried off the court on a stretcher.
The second singles rubber is even more difficult to predict. Daniela Hantuchova has a 5-2 record against Maria Kirilenko, but they’ve never played each other on clay. In their only match since 2008, Hantuchova (then the higher-ranked player) won in three sets last year in Pattaya City. Since then, Kirilenko has developed a more aggressive game and broken into the top-20 for the first time, while Hantuchova suffered a foot injury and loss of form and plummeted out of the top-70.
One or both teams are likely to make a last-minute substitution for Sunday’s reverse-singles matches. Pavlyuchenkova has won her last five matches against Hantuchova, but fell 1-6 1-6 to Magdalena Rybarikova when they last met in Washington, DC last year. Russia’s depth gives it even more options, as both Elena Vesnina and Ekaterina Makarova are formidable singles players.
Neither team can count on winning any particular rubber. Slovakia will have its opportunities, but Russia has a deeper team and its players have reason to be more confident in their recent form, and should win in front of their home crowd.
Prediction: Russia d. Slovakia, 3-1
World Group Playoffs
Teams that win their playoff will play in the World Group next year; teams that lose fall to World Group II.
Australia at Switzerland (Chiasso) on clay
Saturday singles matches: Stosur vs. Voegele; Gajdosova vs. Oprandi
Doubles: Barty/Dellacqua vs. Bacsinszky/Sadikovic
If Sam Stosur has fully recovered from the calf injury she sustained in Indian Wells, she should be the dominant player in this tie, playing on her best surface against opponents who cannot match her power. However, Australia will need another point, and might not get it until Australian Open doubles finalists Casey Dellacqua and Ash Barty take the court in the fifth rubber.
Named as Australia’s second singles player, Jarmila Gajdosova reached a ranking of #25 in 2011, but has suffered two disastrous years since, both personally and professionally. She showed signs of promise in January this year, beating three top-100 players including Vinci and Romina Oprandi… but hasn’t beaten a top-200 player since, and will be playing on clay for the first time this year.
Switzerland will have its chances. Stefanie Voegele is a versatile and tough all-court player, has added more aggression to her game this year, and is smart enough to take advantage of any opponent who is off her game. Oprandi’s unpredictable game occasionally slays giants, and she is capable of surprising power as well. Both Swiss players know how to play on clay. But with an unproven doubles team, they’re likely to need Stosur to have an off day in singles to prevail.
The weather will complicate this tie as well. As I write this shortly before play was originally scheduled to start, rain threatens to delay everything until Sunday.
Prediction: Australia d. Switzerland, 3-2
Serbia at Germany (Stuttgart) on indoor clay
Saturday singles matches: Barthel vs. Ivanovic; Kerber vs. Jovanovski
Doubles: Groenefeld/Lisicki vs. Dolonc/Krunic
Germany will miss Julia Goerges, who withdrew from the tie with an unspecified illness after retiring with dizziness late in the third set of her first-round match in Katowice, and for whom the indoor-clay venue would have been ideal.
However, the Germans couldn’t have asked for a more auspicious first-day draw. Mona Barthel has a 2-0 record against Ivanovic, one of those victories coming last year on clay in the WTA tournament held in this very arena (though in view of their broader track records on clay, the surface should help Ivanovic). While she has battled some physical and mental niggles this season, Angelique Kerber should be too consistent for Bojana Jovanovski, whose one-dimensional baseline game tends to break down in such matchups.
Fans of the Serbians place a lot of faith in the tenacious fight their backup players Jovanovski, Vesna Dolonc and Aleksandra Krunic have shown in previous Fed Cup ties. But that only goes so far against a team as deep as Germany’s. Playing without Jankovic, Serbia has to count on Ivanovic to win both her singles matches (not all that likely) and hope for an unlikely upset by one of its relatively inexperienced backup players in front of a hostile crowd.
Prediction: Germany d. Serbia, 3-1
Sweden at United States (Delray Beach) on hard court
Saturday singles matches: Arvidsson vs. Stephens; Larsson vs. S. Williams
Doubles: Arvidsson/Larsson vs. V. Williams/Lepchenko
Poor Sweden. Sofia Arvidsson and Johanna Larsson fought back from a 0-2 deficit two months ago in Argentina to win a chance to put their team into the World Group, and had the misfortune to draw an American team at a rare moment when it is at full strength. Playing in Delray Beach, Florida, just a half-hour’s drive from the Williams sisters’ home, the Swedes can be expected to fight hard, but are unlikely to come away with much to show for it.
Sweden’s best hopes will come in the first rubber—where their best hardcourt player Sofia Arvidsson faces a slumping Sloane Stephens—and in the last, where if the nominations hold, the experienced “double trouble” team of Arvidsson and Larsson face Venus Williams and Varvara Lepchenko, who have never played together before.
Prediction: United States d. Sweden, 3-1
Japan at Spain (Barcelona) on clay
Saturday singles matches: Doi vs. Suarez Navarro; Morita vs. Soler-Espinosa
Doubles: Aoyama/Morita vs. Medina Garrigues/Dominguez Lino
Japan’s players have made great strides in the last two years, with Ayumi Morita reaching the top-50 and Misaki Doi joining long-time team leader Kimiko Date-Krumm (who is not playing this week) in the top-100. However, no one on the Japanese squad is comfortable on clay, and Spain’s veteran-packed team should retain its World Group status with little trouble.
Prediction: Spain d. Japan, 3-1