Thursday, February 4, 2016
Defending champion Czech Republic faces Romania in this weekend's Fed Cup tie
Defending champion Czech Republic begins its 2016 Fed campaign Saturday with a tie against Romania, a tie for which Simona Halep postponed her nose surgery. The Romanians have the home court advantage, but, arguably, the defending champions have the court surface advantage. That's because the tie is being played on an indoor court, on which team leader Petra Kvitova is generally deadly.
"Generally" is the operative word there because even Fed Cup Queen (reigning alone now that Flavia has retired from the tour) Kvitova has her "off" moments. She lost to Maria Sharapova on an indoor court in November's final.
Also making it difficult for the Czech team to operate at full capacity is the continuing absence of Lucie Safarova, who has not recovered fully from a long illness. During last year's final, the team had to cope with Safarova's absence, as well as Kvitova's loss to Sharapova, but they pulled out the win against Russia, thanks to Karolina Pliskova, who had some superb help from Barbora Strycova in the deciding doubles rubber. Pliskova and Strycova will be on hand this weekend, as well as Denisa Allertova.
Playing for Romania, in addition to Halep, are the eternally tricky Monica Niculescu, Andreea Mitu and Raluca Olaru. Mitu, you'll recall, won a rubber against Genie Bouchard last year when Romania (without Halep) played Canada in the semifinals of the World Group Playoffs. (Mitu was a last-minute substitute for Irina-Camelia Begu.)
It seems likely that--barring unforeseen factors--Niculescu will share singles duties with Halep. There's a lot going on here: Halep has not been feeling well for a while and has cited physical weakness and fatigue as a significant problem. Kvitova, of course, has been ill a whole lot, but--as far as I know--is okay at this time. The inconsistencies caused by her chronic illness and resulting lack of play could play a role in how she competes against Halep. But given that this is Fed Cup, I consider it likely that the Czech star will rise to the occasion.
Pliskova's improvisational leadership role in the 2015 final should give her a lot of confidence in her singles rubbers. If Halep is "on," however, things could get tricky for the Czech Republic. The two countries last met in 1980 in Berlin, and the Czech Republic emerged the winner.
In another World Cup tie, two of the biggest stars of the Australian Open make appearances. World number 2 and Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber leads the German team against Switzerland on an indoor court in Germany. A factor I'll call the KareBear Spirit will loom over the German team, for sure. Andrea Petkovic, whose results have been less than stellar lately on the tour, is nevertheless an especially tough Fed Cup competitor, and the combination of Petko and Kerber is very strong. Also on the German team are Annika Beck and doubles specialist Anna-Lena Groenefeld.
But the Swiss team is no slouch! None other than Australian Open doubles champion Martina Hingis will be on hand, should a doubles rubber need to be played. And both Belinda Bencic and Timea Bacsinszky will handles the singles duties. These matches hold promise for being very high quality and thrilling. And while it's true that Bacsinszky has turned out to be somewhat of a streaky player, Fed Cup just seems like her cup of tea. Also on the Swiss team is Victorija Golubic.
Who would have dreamed that France and Italy would draw each other again two years in a row? Last year, France's dramatic comeback victory over Italy was one of the most exciting moments of the entire season. Facing the second day of play with an 0-2 score, coach Amelie Mauresmo re-structured her team, with the result that Kiki Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia turned the whole thing around and won the tie. The pair is once again on the French team, as are Pauline Parmentier and Oceane Dodin. Conspicuously absent is Aize Cornet, whom Mladenovic substituted for on day 2 play.
Playing for Italy are Sara Errani, Camila Giorgi, Francesca Schiavone, and Martina (even in Italy, they name them Martina) Caregaro. Absent is Roberta Vinci, who suffered her first-ever Fed Cup doubles loss last year, courtesy of Mladenovic and Garcia. Errani hasn't really been herself lately, and Giorgi, despite her talent, can't always carry the psychological burden of competing (neither can Garcia, but she has some good 2015 memories to help her, as well as her recent experience playing Olympic-year doubles with Mladenovic).
While the first three ties create anticipation, the final one is easy to gloss over. Fed Cup giant Russia takes on The Netherlands, which is a pretty one-sided affair. Of course, odd things happen in Fed Cup play, but it's still hard to imagine that the Dutch team, led by Kiki Bertens, can make much of a dent in a team that includes Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Ekaterina Makarova, and Darya Kasatkina.
In World Group II play, Slovakia will take on Australia. Since the tie is being played in Bratislava, Sam Stosur is likely to play well. She and her team will have their hands full, though, what with the likes of Anna Karolina Scmiedlova and Dominika Cibulkova competing for Slovakia. Schmiedy has had a terrible time of it lately, and Fed Cup might be just what she needs to get herself going again.
Canada, without Genie Bouchard, will play Belarus, with Victoria Azarenka. That probably says it all.
The USA (for once) has a very good team put together: Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens, CoCo Vandewegh, and Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Poland has a team without Aga Radwanska, so there you are.
Finally, Serbia plays Spain. Jelena Jankovic is on Serbia's team, but Aleksandra "The Bracelet" (WTA Backspin's nickname for the Serbian team's lucky charm) Krunic is not. Playing for Spain are both Garbine Muguruza and Carla Suarez Navarro. The tie is being played in Serbia on what is described as a medium slow indoor hard court. That sounds like a good deal for Jankovic, Muguruza (who appears to favor any surface) and Suarez Navarro. Even if someone from Spain has a slip-up, it's hard to see the Spanish team losing this.