November 4, 2011

Fed Cup Final: A Turning Point?

This weekend plays host to what could be a very interesting Fed Cup championship -- both squads, with plenty of power and lots of talent, have a real shot at winning the trophy, and though the tide may have shifted ever so slightly, it's too early to count anyone out.

It would seem history favors one side -- Russia won four Fed Cup titles in the last decade, while the Czechs haven't hoisted the trophy since becoming an independent country. The Russians made it here with a one-sided drubbing of the defending champion Italians back in April, and the Czechs advanced by the skin of their teeth over Belgium, securing the win only with a gutsy doubles victory.

But the team is playing without some of its brightest stars -- still-hobbled Maria Sharapova was left off the roster, while world #7 Vera Zvonareva was forced to pull out due to a shoulder injury sustained at the Kremlin Cup. Strangely the next highest-ranked player on their list, #15 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, was relegated to the doubles rubber, leaving Maria Kirilenko -- incidentally a runner-up in doubles at the Australian Open this year -- and veteran Svetlana Kuznetsova to hold up the fort in the early rounds.

In the meantime, the easy-to-overlook Czechs have momentum on their side in a big way. Wimbledon and Istanbul champ Petra Kvitova has dominated the Tour recently, winning her last two tournaments and climbing to #2 in the world. And the doubles pairing of Lucie Hradecka (#15 in the discipline) and Kveta Peschke (#2) will be hard to beat -- if the match goes to a deciding rubber, the advantage should be with the first-time finalists.

But, as always, it won't be quite as easy as that.

Kvitova can have periods of spotty play -- she lost in three straight first rounds after her title in Paris and only won two matches during the summer hardcourt season. She's also lost her only two matches against Kirilenko, admittedly back in 2009, and never faced Kuznetsova. MaKiri, on the other hand, is having a nice fall -- she twice beat her U.S. Open vanquisher Sam Stosur and made at least the quarters of the three events she's played out. And Zvonareva's replacement, Elena Vesnina, has three doubles titles this year herself -- and a runner's-up trophy from Roland Garros. Of course, Lucie Safarova could become a secret weapon on the Czech side, while the roller coaster of Kuznetsova could do the opposite for the Russians.

It would mean a lot for the Czechs to take the title. The growing and developing squad would get a real boost if they can pull off the upset of the long-dominant Russia. But it clearly won't be an easy task -- the Russians will be hungry to return to the winners' podium and could bring the firepower to do it. One thing's certain though -- whoever comes out on top will have earned it.

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