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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.

Dominika Cibulkova: The Ultimate Energizer Bunny

Dominika Cibulkova

By David Kane

During the off-season, players get to make use of time usually spent on the road or on the court during year on fitness and conditioning. Far from a time when one can sit around and indulge in a heaping slice of chocolate cake, players from Monica Seles to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova have tended to take advantage of these working vacations to emerge fitter, faster, and ready for the grueling Australian summer.

Yet despite these physical transformations and the higher expectations that should go with them, we as spectators hardly predict that these athletes’ almost-superhuman bodies will hold up for more than a couple of hours. And when they are put through extreme physical tests, a letdown is not only forgiven, but also a foregone conclusion. Not that this is a call for the “letdown loss” to be judged more harshly, but why do we underestimate our athletes?

Perhaps because when a player convincingly knocks out a top 10 player less than 24 hours after a five hour war of attrition, we find the effort all the more impressive. Such was the case for Dominika Cibulkova; the top 20 stalwart and pint-sized dynamo stayed on the court for a staggering four hours and forty-six minutes in the hopes of toppling last year’s Australian Open quarterfinalist Ekaterina Makarova.

In sweltering heat that read 106 degrees on the thermometer but felt like a balmy 120 on the court, Cibulkova broke the Russian as she served for the match and barreled through a final set tiebreaker (the second of the match) to earn a spot in the Sydney quarters, where she would face Sara Errani, one of the impact players of 2012.

If one lacks a cursory knowledge of tennis, pure common sense should dictate that if one had to run for five hours, the idea of running for at least another 90 minutes sounds like torture. Against a grinder like Errani, that 90-minute dash could easily be extended into yet another marathon. Before the two diminutive big guns even took the court, it appeared easy to predict how the match should go: the heavy-hitting Slovak would punch herself out until she hit a wall, and the steady Italian would slice and dice until she had made pepperoni pizza out of a tired opponent.

To watch the match, one would have thought that Errani herself had not only hit a wall, but also had decidedly banged her head against it a few too many times. Looking flat and lacking the usual snap on her high, topspin groundstrokes, she had no answers against an on-fire Cibulkova, who appeared fresh from a light jog as opposed to lead-footed from a slugfest. Bellowing her signature “Pome!” (Slovakian for “Come on!”), Cibulkova was firing from all cylinders, knocking anything that landed short into the corners and seemed unbothered by the fact that Errani consistently forced her to generate her own pace.

A slight wobble towards the end of the match from Cibulkova treated the Grandstand crowd to a tense ending to what was otherwise one-way traffic for the Slovak, who will again get little rest as she prepares to play No. 2 seed Angelique Kerber for a spot in the final.

It is at this point in the article where one would openly question Cibulkova’s ability to replicate success for a third straight day, whether she has enough left in the proverbial tank to take out another elite counterpuncher. But asking whether she can keep going is a foolhardy question for the ultimate Energizer Bunny.

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