Fill Their Cups: Fed Cup World Group Quarterfinal Preview

Just three months after they celebrated, the Czechs must prepare to defend.

One week after the 2013 Davis Cup began, Fed Cup starts with four ties hosted by European nations.  We look ahead to what viewers can expect from the women’s national team competition.  Having gone 7-1 in Davis Cup predictions, will our hot streak continue?

Czech Republic vs. Australia:  The first of the ties features the only two members of the top ten playing a Fed Cup World Group tie this weekend.  But they also are the two most abjectly slumping women in that elite group, having slumped to equally deflating second-round exits at the Australian Open after imploding at tournaments earlier in January.  The defending champions hold a key trump card if the match reaches a decisive fifth rubber, where their experienced doubles duo of Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova should stifle whatever pair the Australians can compile.  An ideally balanced team with two top-20 singles threats and a top-5 doubles team, the Czechs thus need earn only a split in singles, while the Aussies must get a victory from Dellacqua, Gajdosova, or Barty.  Even in that scenario, they would need Stosur to sweep her singles rubbers, not as plausible a feat as it sounds considering her habit of embarrassing herself with national pride on the line.  The boisterous Czech crowd might lift Kvitova’s spirits, similar to last year’s final when she eked out a victory as Safarova donned the heroine’s garb.  But she too has struggled early this year, leaving the stage set for a rollercoaster weekend.

Pick:  Czech Republic

Italy vs. USA:   To paraphrase the producers who initially turned down the musical Oklahoma:  no Williams, no Stephens, no chance.  Like that show, which became a smash hit on Broadway, this American Fed Cup team has exceeded expectations in recent years when understaffed.  Singles #1 Varvara Lepchenko enjoyed her breakthrough season in 2012, edging within range of the top 20, and Jamie Hampton announced herself with a three-set tussle against eventual champion Azarenka at the Australian Open.  Hampered by a back injury in Melbourne, Hampton likely will trump the inconsistent Melanie Oudin after she showed how much her groundstrokes and point construction skills had improved.  That said, Oudin has compiled plenty of Fed Cup experience, and her feisty attitude that so often thrives in this setting.  Doubles specialist Liezel Huber, although past her prime, should provide a plausible counterweight to the top-ranked doubles squad of Errani and Vinci.  The bad news for an American team, however, is the clay surface and the fact that their opposition also has proved themselves greater than the sum of their parts.  Both inside the top 20 in singles as well, Errani and Vinci look set to take over from Schiavone and Pennetta as women who rise to the occasion in Fed Cup.  Home-court advantage (and the choice of surface that accompanies it) should prove decisive.

Pick:  Italy

Russia vs. Japan:  Surprised at home by Serbia in last year’s semifinals, the Russians had become accustomed to playing final after final in Fed Cup during their decade of dominance.  Even without the nuclear weapon of Maria Sharapova, the ageless Shamil Tarpischev has assembled troops much superior in quality to the female samurai invading from Japan.  All of the Russians rank higher than any of the visitors, while Maria Kirilenko, Ekaterina Makarova, and Elena Vesnina all reached the second week at the Australian Open (Makarova reaching the quarterfinals).  And world #31 Pavlyuchenkova reached the final in Brisbane when the new season started, although her production has plummeted since then.  At any rate, Tarpischev has many more options for both singles and doubles than does his counterpart Takeshi Murakami, who may lean heavily on the 42-year-old legend Kimiko Date-Krumm.  Older fans may recall Date-Krumm’s victory over Steffi Graf in Fed Cup, which came in the friendly confines of Ariake Colosseum rather than Moscow’s sterile Olympic Stadium.  Kimiko likely will need a contribution of Ayumi Morita, who just defeated her in Pattaya City last week and has claimed the position of Japanese #1.  One could see Date-Krumm or Morita swiping a rubber from Kirilenko or Makarova, neither of whom overpowers opponents.  But it’s hard to see them accomplishing more.

Pick:  Russia

Serbia vs. Slovakia:  This tie in Nis looked nice a few days ago, slated to feature two gorgeous women—and only slightly less gorgeous games—in Ana Ivanovic and Daniela Hantuchova.  Adding a bit of zest was another former #1 Jelena Jankovic, who always has represented Serbia with pride and determination.  When both of the Serbian stars withdrew from the weekend, then, the visitors suddenly shifted from slight underdogs to overwhelming favorites.  Granted, the hosts still can rely on the services of Bojana Jovanovski, who fell just short of the quarterfinals at the Australian Open in a breakthrough fortnight.  Beyond the 15th-ranked Cibulkova, Slovakia brings no woman in the top 50 to Nis.  A more dangerous talent than her current position of #58 suggests, though, Hantuchova should fancy her chances on an indoor hard court against whomever Serbian captain Dejan Vranes nominates for singles between Vesna Dolonc and Alessandra Krunic.  She has shone in Fed Cup while compiling a 27-12 singles record there, whereas even Jovanovski has played just seven singles rubbers.  Hand a slight edge to Slovakia in the doubles rubber as well because of Hantuchova’s experience in that format, where she has partnered with Magdalena Rybarikova (also here) to defeat the Serbs before.

Pick:  Slovakia

Come back on Monday for previews of the ATP and WTA tournaments next week, following the format of last week’s ATP preview.

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