Fed Cup Round 1 Preview

Olympics Schmolympics. This week’s Fed Cup ties feature enough star players, close matchups, and interesting storylines to deserve tennis fans’ attention. Even some countries still looking for a way into the elite World Groups are fielding high-powered teams—most notably in the Europe/Africa Zone Group I tournament, which begins on Tuesday. Here’s a guide to the format, the matchups, and what’s likely to happen.

World Group I

In the highest level of Fed Cup, the eight teams in World Group I play each other in a single-elimination format. From its four players, each team nominates two singles players, each of which plays one opponent on Saturday and the other on Sunday (with potential player substitutions). Any ties that are level after the four singles matches are decided by a doubles match. Winning teams advance to April semifinals, and potentially to the final in November.

Let’s look at the contestants:

Slovak Republic vs. Germany
in Bratislava, Slovakia on indoor hard court
Ranking Slovakia Germany Ranking
13 Dominika Cibulkova Angelique Kerber 9
30 Daniela Hantuchova Andrea Petkovic 36
32 Magdalena Rybarikova Julia Goerges 88
82 Jana Cepelova Anna-Lena Groenefeld 14 (doubles)

This tie is the hardest to predict. Especially given the fast indoor conditions, Germany will miss Sabine Lisicki, who withdrew with a shoulder injury. Combined with captain Barbara Rittner’s selection of doubles specialist Groenefeld as a replacement, the result is that the Slovak Republic will be the deeper of the closely matched teams, at least on paper. Top Slovak player Cibulkova is coming off the biggest success of her career with a giant-slaying run to the Australian Open final, but has a mixed history in Fed Cup. She said nerves contributed to the full-body cramps that forced her to retire from last-year’s first-round tie against Serbia while serving for the match, but she also says this year she’s learned how to focus on her game, point by point, rather than getting nervous about the score or the stakes of a match. Hantuchova has a 30–13 singles record in Fed Cup, but could struggle here—she hasn’t beaten a higher-ranked opponent since June. Fielding singles players whose games are more suited to slower conditions, Germany will have to hope they can build on their clutch Fed Cup performances last year and take advantage of any stumbles by the home team.

There’s a good chance this tie will be decided by the doubles, where Germany’s most likely pairing of Goerges and Groenefeld will have an edge in experience over any pair the Slovaks can nominate.

Prediction: Germany d. Slovak Republic, 3–2

Spain vs. Czech Republic
in Seville, Spain on clay
Ranking Spain Czech Republic Ranking
17 Carla Suarez Navarro Lucie Safarova 28
66 Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor Klara Zakopalova 34
77 Silvia Soler-Espinosa Barbora Zahlavova Strycova 69
95 Lara Arruabarrena Andrea Hlavackova 109

This is likely to be another close contest. On paper, Zakopalova would seem to give the Czechs an advantage, being more powerful and considerably higher ranked than any of Spain’s potential second singles players. (Petra Kvitova withdrew due to the same respiratory illness that took her out of Paris last week.) On the other hand, playing at home on their favorite surface should help Spain’s team of solid clay-courters. The tie is likely to hinge on the performance of Lucie Safarova, who has played well lately—beating Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets in Sydney and having a match point against eventual champion Li Na at the Australian Open. To my surprise, in the two matches they’ve played (including one on clay), Suarez Navarro has never won a set from Safarova. If Safarova keeps up her recent form—and this is always a question mark with her—she should win both her singles matches and put the Czech Republic on the brink of victory. If Safarova loses a singles match, the Czechs might have to hope Suarez Navarro is too tired to play doubles on Sunday, something that would give any combination of Czech doubles players an advantage.

Prediction: Czech Republic d. Spain, 3–2

United States vs. Italy
in Cleveland, Ohio on indoor hard court
Ranking USA Italy Ranking
37 Madison Keys Karin Knapp 40
46 Alison Riske Camila Giorgi 84
59 Lauren Davis Nastassja Burnett 161
62 Christina McHale Alice Matteucci 704

After three championships and two semifinals in the last five years, it seems Italy’s top players have decided to take a break from Fed Cup. This means a U.S. team missing its own three highest-ranked players will nevertheless be favored to win. (Sloane Stephens is recovering from a wrist injury she sustained a month ago in Hopman Cup, and Jamie Hampton has been out of action for a month with a hip injury. Serena and Venus Williams aren’t playing, either.)

Each team has only one player with Fed Cup experience: McHale has a 4–3 record (2–1 in live rubbers), and Knapp lost her one singles match, a live rubber in 2008. Italy’s selection of 18-year-old Alice Matteucci is somewhat puzzling, as Italy has quite a few higher-ranked and more experienced players it could have chosen. Matteucci has played mostly $10k ITF events at the professional level, and her record in major junior events wasn’t particularly distinguished. However, she seems to be a serviceable doubles player, and the Italian squad may see her as a valuable asset worth developing for a larger role in the future.

Keys, Riske, and Davis have all had solid results on hard courts this year—Keys reaching the Sydney semifinals, and Riske and Davis both reaching the third round at the Australian Open. Knapp’s and Giorgi’s recent results have been less impressive, though Knapp has faced some tough draws. The indoor hard courts do suit Knapp’s and Giorgi’s aggressive game styles, however, and if they play their best they can both be genuine threats. Most likely the more consistent Americans will prevail without too much trouble, and will be reassured by their greater number of options should the tie be decided in the doubles—Knapp has the best doubles ranking on the Italian team at #269.

Prediction: United States d. Italy, 3–1

Australia vs. Russia
in Hobart, Tasmania on hard court
Ranking Australia Russia Ranking
16 Samantha Stosur Victoria Kan 158
80 Casey Dellacqua Irina Khromacheva 241
154 Ashleigh Barty Valeria Solovyeva 259
203 Storm Sanders Veronika Kudermetova 650

I’m not sure exactly what’s wrong with the politics inside Russian tennis at the moment, but their top players have lost all interest in playing Fed Cup. After being forced to rely on the country’s 10th- and 15th-highest-ranked players Alexandra Panova and Alisa Kleybanova in last year’s final against Italy, captain Shamil Tarpischev fields an even weaker team this year. They’ll be lucky to win a match against a strong Australian team composed of players who have all shown improving form over the last few months.

Prediction: Australia d. Russia, 4–0

World Group II

In the second tier of Fed Cup, teams pair off this weekend, with winning World Group II teams playing first-round losers from World Group I in April to decide the composition of next year’s World Group I. Losing World Group II teams play teams advancing from Zone Group I tournaments in three regions around the world for the right to stay in World Group II.

France vs. Switzerland
in Paris on indoor hard court
Ranking France Switzerland Ranking
25 Alizé Cornet Stefanie Voegele 47
72 Kristina Mladenovic Belinda Bencic 139
76 Caroline Garcia Viktorija Golubic 164
87 Virginie Razzano Timea Bacsinszky 196

Of the World Group II ties, this one has the most star power. Switzerland fields an interesting and multi-talented team, with all-court fighter Voegele backed by promising 16-year-old Bencic and former #37 Bacsinszky. Hosts France clearly have the higher-powered team, however, and have the additional advantage of playing on the very same court as last week’s Paris WTA tournament, where Cornet took third seed Sara Errani to a third-set tiebreak in the semifinals and Mladenovic (barely off the plane after winning the Australian Open mixed doubles title with Daniel Nestor) scored a surprising victory over fifth seed Simona Halep.

Prediction: France d. Switzerland, 3–1

Canada vs. Serbia
in Montréal on indoor hard court
Ranking Canada Serbia Ranking
19 Eugenie Bouchard Vesna Dolonc 117
112 Sharon Fichman Jovana Jaksic 149
224 Gabriela Dabrowski Aleksandra Krunic 152
274 Aleksandra Wozniak Nina Stojanovic

Australian Open semifinalist Bouchard should make a splash playing at home in this tie, and is likely to win both of her singles matches.

Friday update: Bojana Jovanovski has withdrawn. This means Fichman or former #21 Wozniak have a real chance to clinch the tie for Canada by winning a singles match. If not, the likely Canadian doubles team of Dabrowski and Fichman are likely to secure victory. The pair have the highest doubles rankings of anyone in the tie, at #61 and #62 respectively, and upset top seeds Errani and Roberta Vinci on their way to the Toronto semifinals last year. Still, Serbia’s supporting cast has pulled off several clutch doubles victories in the past, and can’t be overlooked.

Prediction: Canada d. Serbia, 3–1

Argentina vs. Japan
in Buenos Aires on clay
Ranking Argentina Japan Ranking
60 Paula Ormaechea Kurumi Nara 65
173 Maria Irigoyen Misaki Doi 102
195 Florencia Molinero Risa Ozaki 170
295 Catalina Pella Shuko Aoyama 36 (doubles)

Japan has the stronger team on paper, while Argentina have the best single clay-court player in Ormaechea. The clay may not hurt this Japanese squad as much as the home team hopes, however—last year Nara won a $50k ITF title on the surface, and Doi reached the quarterfinals in Strasbourg. Argentina should hope Irigoyen and/or Molinero can score clutch wins in singles, as each did at home on clay in Fed Cup last year. If the tie comes down to the doubles, likely Japanese pair Aoyama and Doi have the best rankings and have the advantage of having played together recently, winning a $75k title in November.

Prediction: Argentina d. Japan, 3–2

Sweden vs. Poland
in Borashallen, Sweden on indoor hard court
Ranking Sweden Poland Ranking
85 Johanna Larsson Agnieszka Radwanska 4
135 Sofia Arvidsson Katarzyna Piter 110
257 Rebecca Peterson Paula Kania 171
418 Hilda Melander Alicja Rosolska 46 (doubles)

With Agnieszka Radwanska on the team, Poland are the clear favorites in this tie. (Sister Urszula is still recovering from shoulder surgery.) It’s hard to imagine Aga losing either of her singles matches. Larsson and Arvidsson have put in clutch Fed Cup performances for Sweden in the past, but Arvidsson has slumped badly over the past year. For Sweden to win, everything has to come together perfectly for them: Larsson has to beat Piter in singles, the indoor conditions have to suddenly inspire two-time Memphis champion Arvidsson, and both have to have enough energy to play doubles at the end of the weekend. Any other doubles team the Swedes could field would have little chance against veteran doubles specialist Rosolska and whoever the Poles choose to pair her with.

Prediction: Poland d. Sweden, 3–1

Europe/Africa Zone Group I

Of the three regional zones, Europe/Africa is the most consistently competitive and features better-known players. This year’s Europe/Africa Zone Group I tournament takes place on indoor hard courts in Budapest, Hungary, and is already underway. Teams are divided into four pools, and each team plays all the other teams in its pool in a round-robin format. Pool winners advance to playoff ties, with the two playoff winners advancing to play losing teams from World Group II in April for a chance at promotion.

Pool B has the most star power, with the Romanian team the favorites: Simona Halep, Sorana Cirstea, Monica Niculescu, and Irina-Camelia Begu. It won’t be a cakewalk for the Romanians, though—Halep suffered a disappointing loss to Kristina Mladenovic last week in Paris, and while Cirstea stopped a five-month losing streak in Pattaya City, she also showed inconsistency and mental fragility there losing to Karolina Pliskova, 6-0 in the third set. The toughest challenge is likely to come from Great Britain, whose highest-ranked team member is Johanna Konta. While Konta is a threat when playing her best, she lost the only Fed Cup live rubber she’s played so far, and the British are likely to look to the more experienced and consistent Heather Watson for leadership. (Laura Robson is still out of action with a wrist injury).

Pool A also contains plenty of highly ranked players. The Belgians are the favorites, with Yanina Wickmayer backed by promising 19-year-olds Alison Van Uytvanck and An-Sophie Mestach (Kirsten Flipkens withdrew with a knee injury). They’ll face a challenge from the Netherlands, whose team features the powerful Kiki Bertens and Michaella Krajicek. As I wrote this, the Dutch unexpectedly swept the also-dangerous Croatian team, with Bertens beating 17-year-old prospect Donna Vekic, and surprising 21-year-old hero #205 Richel Hogenkamp upsetting the inconsistent Petra Martic.

Pool C is likely to be the most competitive. I expect Austria to prevail, led by rock-solid counterpuncher Yvonne Meusburger, resurgent Patricia Mayr-Achleitner, and the unpredictable Tamira Paszek. But Ukraine fields a deep team, with #39 Elina Svitolina backed by Olga Savchuk, who took eventual champion Ekaterina Makarova to a close third set last week in Pattaya, and promising 21-year-old twins Nadiya and Lyudmyla Kichenok. Israel could pose a serious threat as well—its leading players, Shahar Peer and Julia Glushko, have had disappointing results lately, but always play hard in Fed Cup.

Pool D is relatively weak, but could be competitive as well. Led by Michelle Larcher de Brito and Maria Joao Koehler, Portugal look most likely to prevail. But Belarus will pose a threat, with Olga Govortsova backed by 19-year-old prospect Aliaksandra Sasnovich. And it would be a mistake to count out the Turkish team, led by Cagla Buyukakcay and Pemra Ozgen.

Other Zonal Contests

It’s also worth mentioning tournaments held in the other two zones. In the Asia/Oceania Zone Group I, China fields a strong team with Peng Shuai, Zhang Shuai, Zheng Saisai, and Wang Qiang, and should dominate Uzbekistan, Taiwan, and South Korea in Pool B. Pool A, however, could feature a close battle. Hosts Kazakhstan have the stronger team on paper, led by Galina Voskoboeva and Yaroslava Shvedova. But the Kazakhs could face a real threat from a Thai team featuring Luksika Kumkhum—who turned heads upsetting Petra Kvitova at the Australian Open—backed by veteran Tamarine Tanasugarn (who has focused on doubles lately), 2009 Wimbledon girls’ champion Noppawan Lertcheewakarn, and Nicha Lertpitaksinchai, who competed well against Elena Vesnina in Pattaya.

In the Americas Zone, both Pools feature competitive contests. Pool B is likely to be decided between Brazil, led by Teliana Pereira, and Colombia, led by Mariana Duque-Marino and Catalina Castaño. All three teams in Pool A should be competitive. Hosts Paraguay have the highest-ranked player in the pool in #180 Veronica Cepede Royg, but Venezuela is close behind with #191 Adriana Perez, and Mexico arguably fields a deeper team.

Finally, the Europe/Africa Zone Group III tournament in Estonia features two top-30 players returning to Fed Cup competition and looking to bring their teams up from the bottom level—Caroline Wozniacki for Denmark and Kaia Kanepi for Estonia (capably backed by promising 18-year-old Anett Kontaveit). Denmark has the tougher draw, with a solid Norwegian team in its pool. If both teams advance from their pools, they’ll play each other to determine who advances to the zone’s Group II.

Thursday Update: Wozniacki isn’t playing for Denmark, after all, even though she was listed on the official Fed Cup website on Tuesday. Then again, the two players who led me to characterize Norway as a solid team—Ulrikke Eikeri and Emma Flood—aren’t playing either.

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