February 4, 2011

The Stars Come Out

I have to admit, I've never been a real ardent follower of Fed Cup. But this year's first round action pits such talent against each other that you can't help but take notice.

Italy vs. Australia, Hobart

The two-time defending champion Italian team is back in full force, boasting a top-five singles player and #1 doubles "specialist". Francesca Schiavone is coming off her best ever showing in Melbourne while Flavia Pennetta just won her maiden Major paired title. Teamed with a feisty Sara Errani and a resurgent Roberta Vinci, it'll be hard to dethrone the queens.

Then again, they are facing a tough Australian team, making their first World Group appearance since an early exit in 2004. Led by Sam Stosur and veteran Rennae Stubbs, there's a lot of firepower in these girls. On most days you have to like Stosur's chances on any court, and if the often underappreciated Jarmila Groth is able to gain footing on home soil, I like the Aussies' chances to cause the upset.

Belgium vs. U.S., Antwerp

The 2010 runners-up to Italy might have an even harder time advancing. A Williams-less U.S. team is up against Belgians led by Kim Clijsters, on a fourteen-match Major win streak, and big-hitting Yanina Wickmayer. They've also got Aussie Open Juniors champ An-Sophie Mestach, someone who must be unfamiliar to most of the relatively veteran team, and could catch a couple players off guard.

The Americans' best hope probably lies in Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the standout last month at Hopman Cup and a truly developing doubles talent. She's now the highest-ranked woman in the U.S., other than Venus and Serena, and can certainly give fits to technically favored opponents. And Melanie Oudin will look to make up for a disappointing 2010 on Tour -- if she's able to pull off the kinds of upsets we know she's capable of, the team might stand a chance.

Czech Republic vs. Slovakia, Bratislava

It can get even more interesting than that -- the formerly united Czechs and Slovakians will battle each other again, this time on the tennis courts. They met three times in the last decade, with the Czechs holding a perfect record, and with the slate they boast this year their streak should continue. Petra Kvitova has jumped to her best ever ranking on the heels of a title in Brisbane and a quarterfinal run at the Open, and Lucie Safarova put up an inspiring fight against Vera Zvonareva in her third round. I'd expect they'd both bring that momentum with them as the visiting team.

The Slovaks aren't at a complete loss, though, as their top-ranked Dominika Cibulkova has been having a successful year, beating both Maria Kirilenko and Caroline Wozniacki in Sydney. After a disappointing loss in Melbourne, I'd look for her to step up her game even more. And Daniela Hantuchova, a ten-plus year staple on the team, won all her rubbers last year, improving to an overall Fed Cup record of 29-10. They might not have quite the strength in doubles, but if they put up a fight during their solo matches it could be a close one.

Russia vs. France, Moscow

The final tie in this year's quarterfinals has the potential to be the biggest runaway. It pits recent champion Russia against a slightly decimated French team. With both Marion Bartoli and Aravane Rezai unable to play -- for admittedly different reasons -- the best they can offer is a rebuilding Alize Cornet. She put up a fight against Kim Clijsters Down Under, but she hasn't made a meaningful dent in a Tour even since 2008. Virginie Razzano is the only other player in the top hundred, though she seems to not yet be back in full form, and veteran Julie Coin has fallen out of the top two hundred.

The Russians on the other hand, two years removed from their last Cup, have brought their best. Maria Sharapova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova have done well so far this year, and Svetlana Kuznetsova's record-setting fourth round in Melbourne proves she's climbing back into form. The only question remains Dinara Safina who continues to struggle in her comeback from injury -- but she's been dealt some ridiculously skewed draws, so her lack of success can't be considered all her fault. And with support from her teammates, this could be her chance to shine.

With so much high-quality talent on board for the Fed Cup's first round, you might think you were watching the late stages of a Major. Hopefully these matches live up to their potential -- it could lay the groundwork for top top-tier battles down the road.

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