April 15, 2011

A Taxing Weekend

It's not the specter of the IRS that'll be on the minds of the ladies taking the court in Russia and Belgium this weekend. But as they fight to make the finals of the 2011 Fed Cup there will nevertheless be pressure to pay up.

Last year's Italian champions handily beat a tough Australian team in the quarters to get here, but with French Open titleist Francesca Schiavone sitting out to focus on defending that title, they're not bringing their best. Roberta Vinci looked like she was gaining traction to start the year, but hasn't won a match since Dubai. World #43 Sara Errani is actually the second ranked player on the team, but she's proven how feisty she can be and could be the better bet to get on the board.

It won't be easy though, as Italy faces four-time winners Russia, helmed by stalwarts Vera Zvonareva and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Sure there's opportunity for upsets -- Bepa has battled through some matches recently and Sveta struggled with injury in Marbella; but both have solid winning records against their opponents and should be able to even improve upon them. Possibly the more interesting match, though, is the doubles rubber teaming together rising stars Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Ekaterina Makarova, both of whom have had success all year. On their own turf in Moscow, they may have more than homecourt advantage on their side.

Like the Italians, Team Belgium is missing its biggest striker -- Kim Clijsters' unfortunate ankle accident puts her play in question for several weeks even after this weekend's tie. They're not at a complete loss, of course, with world #23 Yanina Wickmayer leading the charge. She hasn't had as good a start to the year as she has previously, but some standout performances in Indian Wells and Charleston give me hope. Plus An-Sophie Marach, the Juniors champ in Australia, will get another chance to play with the big girls. She might not win, but she could begin laying the foundation for her future.

Of course it will be a tough battle against a solid Czech squad. They too are missing one of their perennial powerhouses in Lucie Safarova, but young star Petra Kvitova should more than make up for any shortcomings. The surprise winner in Paris has struggled a bit recently, but if she gets herself back together it could be a problem for her opponents. The Czechs are rounded out by accomplished doubles player Iveta Benesova and recent climbers Barbora Zahlavova Strycova and Lucie Hradecka. A couple weeks ago I might not given them a chance, but their play the last few weeks has been pretty impressive.

We all know that no matter how much you audit the stats going into Fed Cup weekend, anything really can happen, so no one can tell whether favorites will survive or upsets abound. Whatever the case, all these ladies better bring their A-games to the semifinals -- after all, the resulting losses are deductions no one wants to take.

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