I know, I know -- I'm late! But it's like 70 degrees in New York this week and I decided to spend my time actually playing tennis rather than writing about it. Sue me!
Anyway, the first round of Fed Cup action wrapped up this past weekend, and the defending champion Russian team was quick to make their bid to repeat, while the U.S., which boasts the #1 and #6 players in the world, struggled through the opening round.
The World Group I pits eight top teams against each other -- the four winners, as is standard in Fed Cup rules, would go on to play for the title while the losers would have to battle for their right to make it back in 2010. The structure is a little strange, I admit -- as I've said before I'm not sure that the teams in this competition really represent the best of women's tennis -- or even the best of the country. Even still this weekend's action did come out largely as it should have.
Russia vs. China
Russian women have been having a good couple of years -- they boast five of the top ten spots in women's tennis, they swept the medals at last year's Olympics, and three of the four semifinalists at the Australian Open donned Russia's flag. Every member of their Fed Cup team is ranked in the top thirty globally.
China has two players in the top thirty, but their #1 Jie Zheng was forced to pull out of play with a wrist injury and Na Li sat out this year. Their best remaining player, Zi Yan, is ranked 117th in the world and has won only one singles title over three years ago.
The four singles matches were easy wins for Russia -- Elena Dementieva and Svetlana Kuznetsova dominated, and happily so did Anna Chakvetadze, who's been struggling for months, and Alisa Kleybanova, whose win over Ana Ivanovic in Melbourne helped her rise to a career-high ranking. The doubles match was a little closer, going to three sets, but the Russians came out on top, sweeping their first round 5-0.
U.S. vs. Argentina
Serena Williams has won the last two Grand Slams, her sister Venus won the one before that. They also took doubles titles in Australia, Beijing and Wimbledon.
Too bad neither were representing the U.S. in Fed Cup this year.
Instead, the best players we could offer were Liezel Huber, part of the best doubles team in the world but not even on the radar for singles, and Jill Craybas, a thirty-four year old veteran who's just holding onto her spot in the top hundred. The other two players on the team, Julie Ditty and Melanie Oudin are the fifth and tenth best in the country.
If possible, Argentina's team was comprised of even lesser-known talent. Other than Gisela Dulko, who I only recognize because Serena admitted she'd given her the runaround in their second round match in Melbourne, I couldn't place one other member.
Dulko won both of her singles matches, but her teammate Betina Jozami lost both of hers. It came down to the doubles match, where Huber's unquestionable talent came through -- she clinched the victory with Ditty in straight sets.
Czech Republic vs. Spain
Spain was the runner-up at last year's Fed Cup, where they were dominated by Russia. This year they were coming off some strong momentum from Australia, and could have been a real force.
Carla Suárez Navarro famously took Venus Williams out of contention at the Australian Open in just the second round and made it all the way to the quarters. Teammate Maria-José Martina Sanchez scored a few upsets of her own in Melbourne, including over #32 Tamarine Tanasugarn in the first round.
But the Czechs are no slackers either. Lucie Safarova had been ranked as high as #22 last year, and though she's had ups and downs, she did notch wins over Samantha Stosur and Sybille Bammer this year. And Petra Kvitova and Iveta Benesova just battled each other in the finals at the Hobart Cup in January (Petra won). Their team only dropped one match in eliminating the Spaniards hope of improving on last year's results.
Italy vs. France
The most shocking score, I feel, came in the final Group I matchup.
France has a solid team -- Alize Cornet has seen her ranking rise steadily over the past year, from #56 last January to #13 now; Amelie Mauresmo has battled through some injuries, but still holds a respectable #24 position; and Nathalie Dechy and Severine Bremond are both accomplished players with some solid wins behind them
The Italians also have some tough players. Sara Errani beat Daniela Hantuchova in Brisbane and Maria Kirilenko in Melbourne. Flavia Pennetta scored two impressive wins over Venus Williams last year. And Francesca Schiavone has spent six straight years in the top thirty.
If any face-off was going to be close, it should have been this one.
But Italy was not intimidated by its neighbor. Amelie took an early lead in her match against Pennetta and Cornet put up a fight in the third against Schiavone, but the Italians went five-for-five for the right to meet the other undefeated team in the semis.
World Group II
In the other Fed Cup bracket eight additional teams were battling for the right to play next year. Former #1s Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic helped Serbia defeat Japan while Slovakia won their first round against Belgium, led by Hantuchova and Hopman Cup winner Dominika Cibulkova. Germany and the Ukraine were also victorious.
They will fight the losers from World Group I in April, and I promise I'll be watching for you!