Insider Preview: Fed Cup Weekend
Published April 14, 2016 12:14
The World Group semifinals take center stage this weekend, but defending champions Czech Republic, Switzerland, France, and the Netherlands aren't the only countries fighting for Fed Cup glory. Two groups of eight also plan to face off in World Group I and II Play-offs in the hopes of moving up the ladder or retaining their place at the top. Which teams have the edge, and which top players will be donning their country's colors ahead of the Olympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro?
World Group I, Semifinals
Czech Republic  @ Switzerland
Powerhouses in the 1980s, the Czech Republic's modern dynasty began in 2011 when Petra Kvitova led her countrywomen to their first Fed Cup title in over 20 years. Largely led by the likes of Kvitova and Lucie Safarova, the top seed team has since won four of the last five years and their last seven ties dating back to 2013. That streak nearly came to an end at the hands of relative newcomers in Romania, who were playing their first World Group I tie since 1992. Led by Simona Halep and Monica Niculescu, Kvitova dropped both of her singles rubbers (or matches) only for the big serving Karolina Pliskova to pick up the slack and set the stage for she and Barbora Pliskova to sweep the decisive doubles rubber and disappoint the Romanian crowd.
Timea Bacsinszky (@TimeaOfficial) April 12, 2016
Things didn't look like they'd get any easier against a rapidly rising Swiss team - they themselves playing in World Group I for the first time in over a decade. With a well-balanced team in Belinda Bencic, Timea Bacsinszky, and doubles co-No.1 Martina Hingis, the Swiss stunned reigning Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber at home in a thrilling tie that also came down to the wire. Bencic's back injury, however, leaves the Swiss women one down, and begs the question of who of Hingis or Viktorija Golubic will play singles. In their World Group I Play-off tie against Poland, Hingis played her first full singles matches since 2007, and the provocative play proved nearly disastrous; not only did the Swiss Miss lose both of her singles rubbers to Agnieszka and Urszula Radwanska, but an injury she picked up while playing the latter - after leading by a set and 5-2 - ruled her out of the doubles rubber, which Bacsinszky and Golubic ultimately won 9-7 in the final set. Neither Kvitova nor Safarova will be present for the semifinal, but it will be harder to make the same gamble against the liks of Pliskova and Strycova, both experienced doubles players. Should Bacsinszky, who regained her world-beating form en route to the Miami Open semifinals, win both of her singles rubbers, a Hingis-led doubles team - in front of a home crowd in Lucerne - will likely prove dangerous no matter the final permutations.
Netherlands @ France
The French team has also seen its star rise back to its former glory with coach Amélie Mauresmo at the helm. Mauresmo led her country to their most recent Fed Cup victory in 2003. With a consistent and enthusiastic duo in Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic single-handedly routing three-time champions Italy, the team gets the added boost of Alizé Cornet, who was instrumental in restoring France's World Group status in 2014. Joined by veteran Pauline Parmentier, the French will be heavy favorites at home against the Netherlands, who stunned the Russians to reach their first World Group semifinal since 1997, when they reached the final. Kiki Bertens and Richel Hokenkamp swept aside a capable Russian line-up of Ekaterina Makarova and Svetlana Kuznetsova - Hogenkamp's 10-8 final set win over the latter being the standout result of the weekend.
France defeated the Netherlands to win their first-ever Fed Cup crown, and their only loss in six meetings with the Dutch came in 1973. Mladenovic and Garcia captured their first doubles title of 2016 at the Volvo Car Open, and should have the advantage playing on the red clay of Trélazé. With eight straight wins since coach Paul Haarhuis took over, do the Dutch have another miracle in them?
World Group I, Play-Offs
Belarus @ Russia
Coming off a devestating loss to the Dutch, the Russians have a chance engineer an immediate return to World Group I, but will have to get past a Belarusian team led by Victoria Azarenka. Former French Open junior champion Daria Kasatkina has turned heads since last year's US Open; back on her beloved clay courts in Charleston, she gave Sloane Stephens the toughest fight in the quarterfinals where she held a match point before falling in three sets. Elena Vesnina is also coming off a Charleston hot streak, doing two better than her doubles partner by reaching the final and rocketing back up the rankings. Youngsters Margarita Gasparyan and Elizaveta Kulichkova complete the line-up, but much will turn on the two-time Australian Open champion, who will be playing her first matches since capturing the Sunshine Double and her first on clay since Roland Garros last spring. An accomplished doubles player, Azarenka could play in up to three rubbers, but Vesnina and Kasatkina are no slouches on the doubles court, having snapped Santina's 41-match winning streak at the Qatar Total Open.
victoria azarenka (@vika7) April 14, 2016
Italy @ Spain
The highest-caliber tie can be found in Lleida, as four Top 20 players - plus former World No.4 Francesca Schiavone - converge on an all-star match-up to determine which team will feature in World Group I in 2017. Spain comes in hot after dismissing Serbia 4-0 in World Group II a few months ago, while Italy lost three live rubbers in a row to bow out to France, 4-1. Carla Suárez Navarro was one of the hottest players to start the season - winning the biggest title of her career in Doha and getting within one spot of her 2016 goal of breaking the Top 5 - but an ankle injury took her out of Indian Wells and likely played a role in her early loss in Miami. Garbiñe Muguruza played one of the best matches of the season against Victoria Azarenka, and didn't drop a set in either of her Fed Cup rubbers against Serbia. Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci each won titles in February - Dubai and St. Petersburg, respectively - and playing on a surface that can blunt Muguruza's power, are more than capable of retaining their World Group I status; can Spain keep winning?
Roberta Vinci (@roberta_vinci) April 13, 2016
Germany @ Romania
The Romanians return home for a second Fed Cup tie in 2016; keen to avoid returning to World Group II, they will need to take out an always solid German team, who narrowly loss to the Swiss in February. Simona Halep overcame a slow start to her season to reach back-to-back quarterfinals in Indian Wells and Miami, while Angelique Kerber came out from under her Australian Open haze to reach the final four in Miami, playing an entertaining two-setter against eventual champion Azarenka. While their likely match-up will be one to watch, both teams are highly versatile with four solid singles players at the ready. Irina-Camelia Begu won a thrilling three-setter against Caroline Garcia to reach the quarterfinals in Charleston, while Julia Goerges started the season with a run to the finals of the ASB Classic and reached the Indian Wells doubles final with Karolina Pliskova.
Annika Beck (@BeckAnnika) April 14, 2016
USA @ Australia
Two teams flying half-way around the world won't be looking to leave with a loss, and the Aussies will hope to kick off their clay court season with a big win over the United States, who whitewashed Poland in World Group II, 4-0. 2010 French Open finalist Samantha Stosur plays grizzled veteran to Daria Gavrilova's wide-eyed debutante; the young Aussie reached the semifinals of Rome last year in what was a breakthrough season for the Moscow native. Finally given clearance to play Fed Cup for Australia, Gavrilova is apt to feel right at home against opposition like Madison Keys and CoCo Vandeweghe - neither of whom have had their strongest results on clay. Though the US boasts Sunshine Double winner Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the doubles rubber only counts if the two teams split their singles rubbers. Having reached the second week of the French Open in 2013, Mattek-Sands might be a strong pick for coach Mary Joe Fernandez to play on Day 1 to get the team off to the best possible start.
World Group II, Play-Offs
For the eight teams fighting it out in World Group II Play-offs, there are only two options: survival or relegation. Win this weekend, and remain in contention to return to World Group I in 2018, or fall back into the Zonal Groups (Euro/Africa, Asia/Australia, Americas) and have to start all over again. At risk teams include Serbia and Belgium, who fielded a solid team of Yanina Wickmayer and Kirsten Flipkens, Canada and Slovakia - featuring Katowice Open champion Dominika Cibulkova - and a high-quality Ukrainian team consisting of Lesia Tsurenko and Kateryna Bondarenko, who take on Argentina.
Yanina Wickmayer (@wickytennis) April 14, 2016
All photos courtesy of Getty Images.