Friday, April 17, 2015

Fed Cup teams bring more than racket bags to semifinals

This weekend's Fed Cup World Group semifinals will feature an exhausted German, a refreshed Czech, a drama-prone Frenchwoman, and a cluster of sometimes mentally challenged Russians and Germans.

What's not to like?

Andrea Petkovic is one tired woman. She made it to the semifinals in both Miami and Charleston--and the doubles semifinals in Charleston. The German star (who was the defending champion in Charleston) said, after her loss to eventual Family Circle Cup champion Angelique Kerber, that "I had a very long season last year, and with the Fed Cup and Sofia, and everything was great, but I just had two weeks of vacation, and I never really, I think, recovered myself from the long season last year."

Angelique Kerber (photo by Daniel Ward)
Kerber might be a bit tired, too, having played five straight matches--most of them tense and long--in Charleston. She had some physical things going on in Charleston, but obviously, nothing that bothered her very much, and she seemed mentally fresh, despite the pressure she was under.

Neither Kerber nor Petkovic is lined up to play singles in this weekend's Fed Cup semifinal against Russia in Sochi. Rather, they are on the roster as doubles players, with Julia Goerges and Sabine Lisicki scheduled to play the singles rubbers. This makes sense, considering all the tennis that Petko and Kerber have played lately. But an argument could easily be made that it doesn't make sense: Lisicki is not going to perform at her highest standard on red clay, and then there's just the general unpredictability of Lisicki. She could win both rubbers or double-fault repeatedly, then leave on a stretcher.

As for Goerges--she has been known to have moments of brilliance on clay, and she would doubtless have more of them if she could only settle the mental part of her game.

So who do these two unpredictable German players get as opponents? Two unpredictable Russians! Svetlana Kuznetsova, the 2009 French Open champion, is a superb tennis player who has a skill set that should be the envy of every young player on the tour. The Spanish-trained Russian can serve, volley, spin, lob, run, and endure. What she can't do is be consistently mentally present during matches. Her countrywoman, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, is also very talented, yet her career has continued to go up and down since she entered the tour.

In other words, anything can happen. Of course, one of the best things about Fed Cup is that anything can happen, regardless of who is playing.

Petkovic, of course, was probably the star of the quarterfinals. Showing Pennetta-like grit, the German star defeated Austraalia's Sam Stosur 6-4, 3-6, 12-10 in a match that lasted three hours and sixteen minutes, the second-longest in Fed Cup history. She returned the next day and beat Jarmila Gajdosova 6-3, 3-6, 8-6. It turned her entire 2015 season around; she would go on to win the Diamond Games in Antwerp the next week.

The other semifinal puts French captain Amelie Mauresmo to a test that seems futile, but then, so did the test of beating Italy on red clay after being down 0-2 after the first day. In one of the most brilliant Fed Cup comebacks ever staged, the French team did just that in the tie that took place in February. It was one of those things that was hard to believe, even while you were watching it, but it happened because Mauresmo knows how to strategically use her players, and she knows how to get the best out of them.

I talked with Caroline Garcia in Charleston about Mauresmo's coaching style, and she said that Mauresmo sometimes offered tactics, but more often, just acknowledged each player's game and was aware who had which strong points. She described Captain Mauresmo as "very quiet" except during play, "when she's on the chair, and...on almost every point, she's all the way stand up...."

And that brings us to France's opponent, the defending champtions, team Czech Republic. Petra Kvitova, returning from a break to heal from exhaustion, will once again lead a strong team that includes Lucie Safarova, Karolina Pliskova and Barbora Strycova. They'll be playing on an indoor court in Ostrava, which means that--if Kvitova has indeed recovered--she will be deadly.

And as great as Kvitova's Fed Career is, Safarova has also become very hard to defeat in Fed Cup play. Safarova, by the way, had to withdraw from Charleston because of a back injury, which presumably has healed. Pliskova and Strycova are lined up to play doubles, but either would be more than able to step in and play singles should that be needed. It's just a really strong team.

But the French team is no slouch. February tie stars Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic are scheduled to play singles, and Alize Cornet and Pauline Parmentier make up the doubles team. But if this semifinal should go to a tie and there is a deciding doubles rubber, you can bet that Mauresmo will go with the consistently successful team of Mladenovic and Anybody. In February, Garcia handled the "Anybody" role with great skill.

So it looks like any Cornet drama will have to come from a dead doubles rubber. On the other hand, the colorful Frenchwoman has more to offer than drama and may be asked by Captain Mauresmo to perform other duties. We just have to wait and see.

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