A World (Group) to Conquer: Fed Cup World Group Semifinals / Playoffs Preview

Hosting a Fed Cup semifinal on clay should make Errani & Co. smile.

Clearing the schedule of tournaments, the WTA turns its spotlight on Fed Cup this week.  Semifinals and playoff ties will decide not only the matchup for the 2013 final but the membership of next year’s World Group in two days filled with action.  Here’s a look at what you might want to know about each tie.

Italy vs. Czech Republic:  When these two teams met on indoor hard courts in the Czech Republic last year, that surface advantage played a key role in a relatively comfortable victory for the hosts.  With the choice of surface now in their favor, Italy will hope that the slow outdoor clay of Palermo will play just as critical a role in reversing the result.  Recent Fed Cup champions themselves, the Italians always have risen to the occasion for Fed Cup, as have the Czechs.  While Lucie Safarova lifted them to their second straight title last fall, world No. 8 Petra Kvitova has produced a far greater level of consistency in Fed Cup than she has in individual events.

An odd bit of déjà vu pits Kvitova against the twelfth-ranked Roberta Vinci on Saturday in a rematch of their Katowice final six days before.  Emerging triumphant on the earlier occasion, Vinci could hand Italy a 2-0 stranglehold over the tie if she can repeat the feat, for world No. 7 Sara Errani likely can outlast the struggling Safarova in the first rubber.  The two No. 1s, Errani and Kvitova, never have met on clay, although Kvitova has dominated their meetings overall.  If the Czechs can survive to reach the doubles, which seems an uphill battle, Italian captain Corrado Barazzutti should substitute Errani and Vinci into a blockbuster battle of the top two teams in the world.  Czech mates Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova captured the 2011 Fed Cup title with a clutch display against Russia, while Errani and Vinci never have lost a live rubber as a team.

Winner:  Italy

Russia vs. Slovak Republic:  Fortunate to receive consistent participation from its two main stars, the Slovak Republic has overachieved in Fed Cup over the last several years.  The visitors once again will lean heavily on Dominika Cibulkova and Daniela Hantuchova, the latter of whom has faded well outside the top 50 in singles but may remain a threat in doubles.  Part of the team that won the Fed Cup for Slovakia more than a decade ago, Hantuchova often brings greater determination to the competition than to individual tournaments.  Without their own top two players, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova, Russia still will fancy its chances in view of its outstanding depth and the encouraging recent form of its singles entrants.  World No. 13 Maria Kirilenko has impressed in a season highlighted by an Indian Wells semifinal appearance, while the unpredictable Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova arrives with momentum from her most recent Monterry title.

Although Hantuchova won her most recent clash with Kirilenko, the pair never have met on clay and only once in the last five years.  The other Saturday pairing of Cibulkova and Pavlyuchenkova also marks the first clay meeting in a sparse history, so one would favor each of the No. 1s to prevail.  The key to this weekend might lie in their meeting on Sunday, for which their nearly consecutive rankings would suggest a tight encounter.  More consistent than Cibulkova this year, Kirilenko would position Russia for another trip to the final with a victory.  Not only has Pavlyuchenkova won her last five meetings with Hantuchova, but the experienced doubles duo of Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina would seem more formidable than any pairing that the Slovaks can muster.

Winner:  Russia

World Group Playoffs: 

Germany vs. Serbia:  Last year’s Fed Cup finalists field the player with the strongest career resume, especially on clay, in Ana Ivanovic.  But the former No. 1 has watched her results during this stage of the season dwindle sharply since winning Roland Garros five years ago, and she fell to Friday opponent Mona Barthel on this court in Stuttgart last year.  The resurgent Jelena Jankovic has not traveled to Stuttgart, leaving Bojana Jovanovski to complement Ivanovic.  German No. 1 Angelique Kerber should handle the raw Jovanovski comfortably, while Ivanovic often has struggled with lefties like her.  The heavy serves of Sabine Lisicki and Anna-Lena Groenefeld could offer a valuable edge in the doubles on this serve-friendly indoor clay.  But the home team likely need not worry about a deciding rubber.

Winner:  Germany

Switzerland vs. Australia:  Voluntarily ceding home-court advantage with the European clay ahead, Australia sets its sights at an underrated Swiss team.  Federer’s countrywoman Stefanie Voegele reached the Charleston semifinals after upsetting three top-30 opponents, including world No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki.  Her Saturday meeting with Samantha Stosur could set the tone for a tie that pits Australian heavy-hitting against Swiss counterpunching.  Troubled by multiple injuries and a loss of confidence over the last several months, Stosur may need to win three matches in two days with no teammate inside the top 100.  Clay arguably suits her game more than any other surface, and she should feel less pressure than if Australia hosted this tie.  This tie might well come down to the doubles after some unpredictable momentum shifts.

Winner:  Australia

Spain vs. Japan:  The No. 1s of both nations, Carla Suarez Navarro and Ayumi Morita, have played some of their best tennis to date this year.  Especially notable is the Spaniard’s rise to the top 25, built in part on a runner-up finish in Acapulco.  As with the Italy-Czech Republic semifinal, this tie could hinge on the surface.  Morita and her compatriots have done most of their damage on hard courts, whereas the veteran Spanish squad relishes the opportunity to grind through the weekend on dirt.  Outside the fan bases of each nation, few viewers will find this tie engaging to watch, except for the spectacle of Suarez Navarro’s florid one-handed backhand.

Winner:  Spain

USA vs. Sweden:  With not one but two of the Williams sisters in Delray Beach, Sofia Arvidsson and her fellow Swedes can harbor little hope to keep this tie competitive.  Captain Mary Joe Fernandez saw no need to request the services of doubles specialist Liezel Huber to join such a stacked lineup.  Struggling since reaching the Australian Open semifinals, future star Sloane Stephens perhaps can use the presence of the Williams sisters to steady her spirits.  This tie stands alone among the semifinals and World Group playoffs in its surface, outdoor hard courts, and it likewise stands alone among these ties in its location outside Europe.

Winner:  USA