Stars In Their Patriotic Eyes
Published April 13, 2011 03:20
Russia and Italy have dominated the Fed Cup since 2004, winning seven titles between them. But only one of the team competition powerhouses can advance to this year's final, with the Russians heavy favorites to win their semifinal this weekend. Kim Clijsters sidelined, the other semi between Belgium and the Czech Republic is looking much harder to call.
With Flavia Pennetta injured and reigning French Open champion Francesca Schiavone choosing to prepare for the clay-court season - the Moscow tie is being played on an indoor hardcourt - the Italians will be led by No.37 Roberta Vinci and No.43 Sara Errani, who are usually on doubles duty. They will be joined by Maria Elena Camerin and Alberta Brianti, who is making her Fed Cup debut at the age of 31.
"It will be difficult for us without Francesca and Flavia," conceded team captain Corrado Barazzutti on Wednesday. "But I think the team is much motivated to play this match and fight to the very last point."
For its part, the hosts will field world No.3 Vera Zvonareva and two-time Grand Slam winner Svetlana Kuznetsova, as well as top-ranked teenager Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Ekaterina Makarova. While Russia holds a 4-1 advantage against Italy, and has been unbeaten at home in nine ties since losing to France in the 2003 semifinals, Zvonareva won't be complacent.
"The match will be a tough one," she said. "Italy has proved to be one of the strongest teams in recent years. And though they will be without Francesca and Flavia, we will have to fight hard. They will not give up a single point."
In Charleroi, Belgium, gunning for a first final since 2006, will be spearheaded by Yanina Wickmayer - a role she played with aplomb when Clijsters and Justine Henin were both in retirement; Kirsten Flipkens takes up the No.2 singles slot. But the tight-knit Czechs, semifinalists for the third year in a row - and looking for a first Fed Cup final since becoming an independent nation - were fierce against Slovakia in February. If lefties Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova are once again on song they will be hard to stop.
In total, nine ties will be contested this weekend, with World Group and World Group II play-offs taking place.
Four berths in the elite eight World Group are up for grabs, with Spain hosting France, Slovakia hosting Serbia, Australia hosting Ukraine, and Germany hosting the United States.
France, led by Aravane Rezai and Alizé Cornet, is fighting to avoid relegation from the World Group for the first time; the Slavic blockbuster in Bratislava features Daniela Hantuchova and Dominika Cibulkova against Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic; and Jarmila Groth leads the Aussies against the Bondarenko-less visitors.
There's a real sense of a changing of the guard in the US squad, with teenagers Melanie Oudin and Christina McHale named to play singles against a German side that includes recent Top 20 arrival Andrea Petkovic, Julia Goerges, Sabine Lisicki and Anna-Lena Groenefeld. The tie is being held at the same venue in Stuttgart as the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix as that event's qualifying rounds get underway - an ITF/WTA first.
The weekend's World Group II play-offs feature Slovenia at home to Canada, Switzerland hosting Sweden, and Belarus welcoming Estonia. The other play-off between Japan and Argentina has been postponed until July, due to the recent earthquake and tsunami.
"It's going to be the first time I've played Fed Cup at home, so I'm really excited," said world No.5 and Belarusian No.1 Victoria Azarenka. "We're very friendly as a team and we stick together. It's going to be really nice to do it all at home with the fans… actually I don't know how it's going to feel. I'm really looking forward to finding out."