If ever there were a don't-miss Fed Cup semifinal, it's the upcoming one between two-time defending champion Czech Republic and preceding two-time defending champion Italy. The event, which takes place April 20 and 21, will be held in Palermo on red clay, so there are certain advantages to playing for Italy. The "classic" Italian Fed Cup team is lined up: Francesca Schiavone, Flavia Pennetta (the Queen of Fed Cup), Sara Errani, and Roberta Vinci.
In the past, Pennetta--a very good player by any standard--would just go crazy on opponents during Fed Cup matches. Some of the greatest moments of her career have taken place during Fed Cup competition. Pennetta has been injured quite a bit in the past several months, however, so there's some question as to how well she can perform. On the other hand, this is Fed Cup, and this is Flavia Pennetta.
Schiavone, surely close to the end of her wonderful career, has been really up and down for a while, but Fed Cup tends to bring out the best in the Fighting Italians, so the entire Italian theme is always a threat. Errani and Vinci are total threats. Vinci is just coming off of her win of the debut Katowice clay tournament, and is now number 12 in the world. Errani is always a tough customer on clay.
And then you put them together. Errani and Vinci, the number 1 doubles team in the world, do as well in Fed Cup as they do in every other event. Vinci, in fact, has never lost a Fed Cup doubles rubber. She's 18-0 in doubles, and she and Errani together are 6-0. Should the semifinal go to a fifth rubber, history--not to mention everything else--is definitely on Italy's side.
But Italy has its work cut out because the Czech Republic shines in Fed Cup play, also. Petra Kvitova, for all her frustrating tour history, comes to life during Fed Cup, not unlike Pennetta. Sure, clay isn't her best surface, but she's capable of doing very well on it. Kvitova has won 13 of her last 14 Fed Cup rubbers, and the Czech Republic also has Lucie Safarova, who has proved to be able to rise to the occasion, also.
Also playing for the Czechs are Klara Zakopalova, another strong team member, and doubles expert Lucie Hradecka.
Last year, Italy lost to the Czech Republic in the semifinals. The Czech team hasn't lost a Fed Cup competition since 2010, when they were beaten by Italy. You see? This is probably as good as it gets.
But let's not forget the other semifinal. Four-time Fed Cup champion Team Russia hosts the Slovak Republic in Moscow on indoor red clay. The two teams have not met since 2001. It's interesting to note that all four Russian team players--Maria Kirilenko, Anastasia Pavlyuchenko, Ekaterina Makarova, and Elena Vesnina--are very good doubles doubles players. Kirilenko and Vesnina are exceptional in doubles competition.
Pavlyuchenkova, who's been in quite a slump lately, just one her third title in Monterrey, so she's undoubtedly coming into this semifinal with some confidence. She'll get a little help, too, from coach Martina Hingis.
The strength of the Slovak Republic's team lies in the person of Dominika Cibulkova, and perhaps in Daniela Hantuchova, whose ranking has gone way down, but who may still have enough resources to do some damage in Moscow. Hantuchova has an outstanding history with regard to doubles. Other members of the Slovak Republic team are Magdalena Rybarikova and Jana Cepelova.
In the World Group Play-Offs, Germany and Serbia will meet for the first time. Germany's team, frankly, looks better on paper than it really is. Angelique Kerber, Mona Barthel and Sabine Lisicki have all been pretty much of a mess lately, though world number 6 Kerber is dangerous in any circumstance. Fed Cup may also give Barthel an opportunity to get back on track. The other member of Germany's team is doubles specialist Anna-Lena Groenefeld.
Not playing for Serbia is Jelena Jankovic, which puts Serbia at a great disadvantage. The good news is that Ana Ivanovic is on the team, and it doesn't hurt that Bojana Jovanovski is on it. Vesna Dolonc is the third member, and rounding out the Serbian group is the amazing Aleksandra Krunic, whose Fed Cup heroics in doubles make her scary. She won't have Jankovic as a partner this time around, though, so if the play-off should go to a fifth rubber, Krunic will have to "groom" someone else to take Serbia to the victory.
Switzerland and Australia will compete in the Play-Offs in Switzerland, with Stefanie Voegele just coming off an outstanding performance in Charleston. Sam Stosur isn't playing in Australia, which bodes well for her. Australia also has a good doubles team in Casey Dellacqua and Ashleigh Barty.
Spain will host Japan in the third play-off. I was hoping to see Garbine Muguruza on the Spanish team, but she's not a member. Carla Suarez Navarro is, however, and she'll doubtless be going head-to-head with Japan's Ayumi Morita, who just keeps improving.
The last play-off features the USA against Sweden, and the USA's team includes both Williams sisters. New Fed Cup star Varvara Lepchenko is on the team, too, and after her performance against Italy, she definitely adds value to the USA's roster. The event will be played in Delray Beach, practically around the corner from Venus and Serena, and on a hard court. Really, what's not to like for the USA?