The storyline leading up to this weekend’s first round of Fed Cup has been a grimly familiar one: Where are the players? Russia, a traditional powerhouse, will travel to Australia with what can charitably be described as its D team—the country’s 11 best women won’t make the trip, and one of their singles starters, Veronika Kudermetova, has a singles ranking of 650. The U.S. will play without its two best, Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens; the only positive for the States is that the country’s opponent, Italy, will be without its three best, Sara Errani, Roberta Vinci, and Flavia Pennetta. The Czech Republic, usually a reliable Fed Cup performer, will also be without its top two, Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova.
In a sad story this week in USA Today, Pam Shriver calls the competition a “dinosaur” because of its multi-weekend, multi-venue format, which is hard to follow for fans and hard to schedule for players. This particular weekend is especially difficult, schedule-wise, because two lucrative WTA events in Doha and Dubai follow right on its heels. A few years ago, the Davis Cup bumped its ties up a week, so they now follow hard on the heels of the majors. The move has mostly been a success, and it might have helped Fed Cup this time, but it’s hard to say it would be a long-term solution for the women.
For now, we’ll follow those who have decided to participate. Team tennis events can still be exciting regardless of who's playing, and it goes without saying the ties will mean a lot to those involved—plus, the Germans and the Slovaks are bringing their best to Bratislava. Here are capsule previews of that tie and the three others from the World Group's opening round. You can see all of the details here.
Italy vs. USA
Public Auditorium, Cleveland, OH (Indoor Hard)
After her loss to Victoria Azarenka at the Australian Open last month, Sloane Stephens was asked, with some skepticism, whether she thought she would make it to the U.S.'s upcoming Fed Cup tie.
“February in Cleveland doesn’t immediately jump out at you?” a reporter queried.
“I hear it’s going to be like 0 degrees and snowing,” Stephens answered, “so, no, it’s not the first exciting thing in line.”
Not too surprisingly, Stephens, citing a wrist problem, won’t be in Cleveland; neither will the USA’s No. 1, Serena Williams, who is dealing with her own injury issues; today, she also pulled out of Doha.
The same goes for Italy’s best, Errani, Vinci, and Pennetta, all of whom passed on making the mid-winter trip to Northern Ohio a couple days ahead of their trek to the Arabian desert.
That leaves No. 62 Christina McHale to face No. 40 Karin Knapp in the tie’s opener, followed by No. 37 Madison Keys vs. No. 84 Camila Giorgi; the next day, those match-ups will be reversed. Collectively, Italy’s singles rankings add up to 124; the U.S.’s to 129. The doubles, as of now, will pit Lauren Davis and Alison Riske against Natassja Burnett and Alice Matteucci. The U.S. should have the advantage in that one.
It’s a tough tie to call, and it’s made even tougher by the presence of Keys and Giorgi, who are both young, talented, wildly erratic free-swingers. From a U.S. point of view, a good weekend for the teenage Keys would be a positive for the future. But the Italians, who are the defending champions, have had the Yanks’ number over the last five years: They've beaten them three times.
Czech Republic vs. Spain
Centro de Tenis Bias Infante, Seville, Spain (Outdoor Red Clay)
This is another battle between depleted powerhouses. The Spanish have won seven Fed Cup titles, the Czech Republic five (counting three wins as Czechoslovakia). With Kvitova and Safarova, the Czechs were champs in 2011 and 2012. Now they’ll try their luck without them.
That leaves the Spanish, who will be at home on clay, with a slight advantage. Carla Suarez Navarro is the highest-ranked player on either team, though she’s just 7-7 for her career in Fed Cup. The key match-up could come in the reverse singles, when Suarez Navarro takes on No. 34 Klara Zakopalova.
Germany vs. Slovak Republic
Aegon Arena, Bratislava, Slovak Republic (Indoor Hard)
Now this is what a Fed Cup tie should look like. The Germans will have their best, Angelique Kerber and Andrea Petkovic, and the Slovaks will counter with theirs, Dominika Cibulkova and Daniela Hantuchova.
Kerber, at No. 9, is the highest-ranked player, though you wouldn’t know it from her 3-5 Fed Cup singles record. Cibulkova, obviously, has the most momentum after her Aussie Open runner-up finish, and her Fed Cup record is a healthy 17-9. Hantuchova, 31 years old, with a 30-13 Fed Cup singles record, is the most experienced and the most versatile—she’s scheduled for both singles matches, as well as the closing doubles. The oft-injured but potentially inspiring Petkovic is the wild card.
Winner: Slovak Republic
Russia vs. Australia
Domain Tennis Centre, Hobart, Australia (Outdoor Hard)
There’s really no excuse for Australia not to sweep this one. The combined singles ranking of the Aussies, Sam Stosur and Casey Dellacqua, is 96. The combined singles ranking of the Russians is 891. Dellacqua and her partner, Ash Barty, are both Top 20 in doubles; the Russian team of Victoria Kan and Valeria Solovyeva is a combined 474. Plus, if they need a little extra help, they'll be playing in Oz.