Last week we had a Davis Cup first round with three of the Big 4 men missing. This week it’s the women’s version of a ruling class, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, and Serena Williams, who will be absent from the first round of Fed Cup. It didn’t end up mattering much with the men, as the opening weekend of Davis Cup delivered its usual share of drama and heroics. Can we expect fireworks from the women?
Below is a quick look ahead at the four World Group ties that will be held Saturday and Sunday (you can find rosters and match-ups and all other relevant information at the Fed Cup website). Not all of these ties look competitive on paper, but you never know what's going to happen when you throw tennis players onto a team.
Australia vs. Czech Republic
Ostrava, Czech Republic
Looking down the lineups for this tie, you quickly get an idea of why the defending champ Czechs are so tough in Fed Cup. While Lucie Safarova’s career singles record in the competition is only 8-9, from a ranking standpoint, she makes a strong second gun. While the two No. 1s here, Petra Kvitova and Sam Stosur, are ranked 8 and 9 in the world, respectively, Safarova is 150 spots ahead of the Aussie No. 2, Jarmila Gajdosova. The match between them, which would be the last of the singles on Sunday, could be the key.
Otherwise, Kvitova is favored to win twice; she’s 3-0 against Stosur, and she thrives in Fed Cup, where she’s 16-5 lifetime (though Sam is an equally impressive 23-9). If it comes down to the doubles, it could be tight. The Czechs’ Hradecka and Hlavackova won the French Open in 2011 and have been to the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open; Barty and Dellacqua reached the Australian Open final two weeks ago.
Pick: Czech Republic
USA vs. Italy
No Serena, no Venus, no Sloane: Where does that leave the USA? Stuck, most likely, in the red dirt that the Italians have laid down in Rimini. Italy, a Fed Cup powerhouse, has transitioned from one two-woman team—Schiavone and Pennetta—to another featuring the Aussie Open doubles champs Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci. The U.S. will send Varvara Lepchenko and Jamie Hampton in to face them in singles, and Melanie Oudin and Liezel Huber in dubs. From a curiosity standpoint, it will be interesting to see if Hampton can continue her run of good play when she shifts over to clay. Otherwise, this one looks an Italian win.
Japan vs. Russia
On paper, this tie also appears to be an uphill climb for the visitors. The Russians are in familiar surroundings, and the combined ranking of their singles players, Kirilenko and Makarova (33) far outstrips Japan’s Morita and Date-Krumm (134). Japan will have to hope that experience trumps rank: Kirilenko and Makarova are a combined 0-3 in Fed Cup singles, while Morita and Date-Krumm are 30-13. Date Krumm played her first tie way back in 1989, two years after her first opponent, Kirilenko, was born. The 42-year-old is 2-0 against Maria. If she can steal a win in their opening rubber, things could get tight in Olympic Stadium.
Slovak Republic vs. Serbia
The Serbs, like the Yanks, are without their A-team. Both Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic, who led the country to the final last year, are missing. Barring upsets, that tips the scales in favor of the Slovaks. At each spot, from 1 to 4, they have the higher-ranked player, and their No. 2, Daniela Hantuchova, is historically much better than her current No. 58 ranking.
The Slovaks also have Fed Cup experience on their side. Hantuchova and Cibulkova are a combined 43-19 in singles, while Jovanovski is 4-3 and the Serbian No. 2, Vesna Dolonc, is making her debut in the competition. The most likely win for the Serbs will be in the first match, between Jovanovski, who has been playing well, and Hantuchova, who will turn 30 in a couple of months. The home team will need all the support it can get.
Pick: Slovak Republic