Fed Competition begins this weekend, and of the three World Group contests, only one looks like a "lock" for one of the opponents. However, this is Fed Cup, and it's never a good idea to assume anything. But, beginning with the one that does look predictable:
Czech Republic vs. Spain
The defending champions, who don't care if they're home or away, or whether they have their "A" team or their "B" team (this is because the entire squad is an "A" team), will take their first step in defending their title this weekend on an indoor hard court in Ostrava. Obviously, this court is a piece of heaven for Petra Kvitova, but Petra won't be there.
No worries. Karolina Pliskova, Barbora Strycova, Katerina Siniakova, and Lucie Safarova will
be there. Pliskova, Strycova and Safarova are Fed Cup veterans who have aptly handled some very big matches at very intense moments. And Siniakova has shown herself to be a talent who is likely to fit in well with the mighty Czech Republic team.
Spain has Garbine Muguruza, Lara Arruabarrena, Sara Sorribes Tormo, and veteran Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez. Arruabarrena can be dangerous on a clay court, but perhaps not so much on the faster indoor court. Martinez Sanchez, in her day, was a force in both singles and doubles, and in Fed Cup, anything can happen. However--again--MJMS was usually able to shine on a clay court. Muguruza is good on any
court, but we're never sure which Garbine is going to show up. Spain could give the Czechs a real fight, but the defending champions should be able to get through to the semifinals.
USA vs. Germany
The USA has a strong team under the leadership of new Fed Cup captain Kathy Rinaldi. CoCo Vandeweghe, Alison Riske, Shelby Rogers, and Bethanie Mattek-Sands will represent their country in Maui, where play will take place on an outdoor hard court. Vandeweghe's Australian Open run puts her into the position of leading her team, and we can expect strong, aggressive play from her.
Germany is represented by an equally strong team: Laura Siegemund, Andrea Petkovic, Julia Goerges, and Carina Witthoeft. The slower the court, the better for Siegemund, Petko and Goerges. Siegemund has been in a relative slump, and Fed Cup may offer her the opportunity to climb out of it. Petkovic is a proven Fed Cup threat, and the anticipated contest between her and Vandeweghe has the potential to be very tasty.
Belarus vs. Netherlands
The first two words that come to mind are "Kiki Bertens." The Dutchwoman is an authentic Fed Cup beast, and even though the rubbers will be played on an indoor hard court in Minsk, there's still every reason to believe that Bertens will dominate.
Belarus will be represented by Aliakandra Sasnovich, Aryna Sabalenka, Olga Govortsova, and Vera Lapko. Sasnovich, at number 128, is the highest ranked singles player. Joining Bertens will be Cindy Burger, Arantxa Rus and Michaella Krajicek.
Switzerland vs. France
This is the most interesting of the four World Group ties because of the major changes that have been made in the French team. Captain Amelie Mauresmo, who has brilliantly managed her charges for the last few years--taking them to the final in 2016--has resigned because she is pregnant with her second child. Also gone is Mauresmo's obvious protege, Caroline Garcia. Garcia has decided to skip Fed Cup this year in order to focus on her singles career.
I wrote last year that Mauresmo was practically breathing fire into Garcia at Fed Cup ties, so intense was her support and encouragement of the sometimes-fragile world number 25. It worked. Garcia's tennis persona has been finely drawn and amplified by Mauresmo's Fed Cup influence.
And then there's the matter of Mladenovic and Garcia, the world's second-ranked doubles team, and French Open champions. The bad news is that Kiki Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia could be counted on to win almost every Fed Cup doubles match they played (ask Pliskova and Strycova about he "almost" part). The good
news is that Mladenovic and Anybody is probably still a very reliable team.
Alize Cornet, a talented and highly competitive player, should
be a great asset for France, but the reality is that her Fed Cup record (3-13) is terrible. Cornet just cannot handle the pressure of the Fed Cup atmosphere. But maybe this time, she'll transcend the pattern. There are only three players listed for the French team--Mladenovic, Cornet and Pauline Parmentier. They will be coached by a former French Open champion (and also a good friend of Amelie Mauresmo), Yannick Noah.
In World Group II news--Ms. Halep if you're Nasty
Ilie Nastasi, of all people, will coach the Romanian team in its challenge against Belgium. Nastasi has been publicly critical of Simona Halep for what he perceives as her lack of loyalty to Romania (hilarious if you follow the world number 4's ongoing obsession with pleasing her countrypeople). But--fortunately for both of them--the again-injured Halep won't be part of the team this weekend.
Romania vs. Belgium
Irina-Camelia Begu will lead the team on an indoor hard court in Bucharest, and she'll be joined by Monica Niculescu, Sorana Cirstea, and Patricia Maria Tig. That's a good team! But Belgium has a really good team, too: Yanina Wickmayer, Kirsten Flipkens, Elise Mertens, and Maryna Zanevska. This should be a really good tie.
Russia vs. Chinese Taipei
Knocked out of the World Group by Kiki Bertens and her sneaky band of Dutchwomen, Russia now has to fight its way back through the Chinese Taipei team. Ekaterina Makarova, Natalia Vikhlyantseva, Anna Blinkova, and Anna Kalinskaya will play for Russia. Look for Blinkova to attempt a Fed Cup breakthrough.
Playing for Chinese Taipei will be Chang Kai-Chen, Lee Ya-Hsuan, Hsu Ching-Wen, and Chan Chin-Wei.
Ukraine vs. Australia
This is an interesting tie. Ukraine will be led by Elina Svitolina, who will be joined by Lesia Tsurenko, Olga Savchuk, and Nadiia Kichenok. Svitolina is the star, of course, but Tsurenko can rise to an occasion from time to time. The Ukrainian team will play in their own country on an indoor hard court.
Playing for Australia are Daria Gavrilova, Ash Barty, Arina Rodionova, and Casey Dellacqua--strength in both singles and doubles.
Italy vs. Slovakia
Two of the "big four" will play for Italy--Sara Errani and Francesca Schiavone. They will be joined by Jasmine Paolini and Martina Trevisan. And while both Errani and Schiavone have great Fed Cup records, Team Italy just isn't what it once was, and Errani and Schiavone--Fighting Italians if ever there were
any--aren't what they once were.
On the other hand, the Slovakian team is just one big wild card. It's led by the talented but unfortunate Jana Cepelova, whose many injuries have stalled her career in a serious way. Also on the team is the once-great Daniela Hantuchova, who is now on the edge of the final part of her career. They are joined by Rebecca Sramkova, and Anna Karolina Schmiedlova.
If Cepelova is unlucky, then Schmiedlova is absolutely snake-bitten. After winning two titles in 2015 (and beating Italians in both finals; one of those Italians was Errani), Schmiedy dropped off the face of the tennis Earth in 2016. She is slowly, steadily improving her results, and one has to wonder whether the sight of those Italians might be just what she needs to have a breakthrough in Fed Cup play this weekend.
The tie will be played on a clay court in Italy.