Sure, most of the U.S. will have its eyes glued to the Super Bowl tonight -- go Giants! -- but there was plenty of other action on fields of a much smaller size this weekend. And the ladies who contested the first set of 2012 Fed Cup rubbers put up an effort that just might rival what the big boys are doing in Indianapolis -- and while some favorites thrived, a couple underdogs came out shining.
The defending champion Czech team had what looks like the easiest weekend of the bunch, despite a quarterfinal match-up with a tough German team. But Iveta Benesova, who's already beaten Sam Stosur and Shaui Peng this year, seems to be suddenly coming to her own on the singles circuit -- she opened the tie with a solid comeback against world #14 Sabine Lisicki. Then 2011 WTA player of the year Petra Kvitova gave the Czechs the lead after surviving a seventy-two minute, 10-8 third set against Julia Goerges. Angelique Kerber gave the Germans their only point of the tie, beating Lucie Hradecka in straight sets, but it was the Czechs who easily clinched their spot in the semis again.
The Russians, in a rematch of the 2008 final, also had an easy start against Spain as they looked to improve on their runner-up showing from last year. Maria Sharapova easily handled Silvia Soler-Espinoza in their first rubber and Svetlana Kuznetsova added to the lead by taking out one-time Melbourne quarterfinalist Carla Suarez Navarro in just over an hour. But the Spaniard rebounded nicely to upset Nadia Petrova in the first reverse singles match on Sunday, and in was left to Kuznetsova to secure the win. The veteran Russian was pushed to three sets by Soler-Espinoza, but was able to convert her only break opportunity in the decider, winning the match and rendering the doubles rubber moot. That marks the sixth straight year the Russians made the Fed Cup semis.
The other two quarterfinals came right down to the wire -- some surprising performances, both bad and good, made things a little tougher than you'd expect. The Italians, Fed Cup champions in 2009 and 2010, should have had a much easier time of things, though. But one-time French Open champion Francesca Schiavone was dismantled by world #121 Lesia Tsurenko in the second rubber, keeping the seeds even with the upstart Ukraine going into Day Two. Schiavone battled back after losing the first set tiebreak to Kateryna Bondarenko on Sunday though -- a good thing, too, since surprise Melbourne quarterfinalist Sara Errani retired a set and a break down to Tsurenko later in the day. But with Flavia Pennetta and Roberta Vinci -- both currently ranked better in doubles than singles -- headlining the final rubber, the Italians finally clinched the win after a surprisingly long decider. They'll face the Czechs in April, and will certainly need to be more consistent if they're going to make another run to the final.
But perhaps the biggest shock came from unseeded, unheralded Serbia, facing 2001 champions Belgium on their home court. Sure, the Belgians were without their biggest star in Kim Clijsters, but with some recent spotty performances by Jelena Jankovic and no follow-through from up-and-comer Bojana Jovanovski, their prospects looked grim. JJ survived a tough two sets against veteran Kirsten Flipkens on Saturday, but pulled out of reverse singles with a thigh injury. Yanina Wickmayer evened the score for the Belgians and ran over eighteen-year-old Aleksandra Krunic in the third rubber, giving her team the lead. But BoJo came through to force a deciding rubber and teamed with the same youngster in doubles to stun Wickmayer and Alison Van Uytvanck in a three-set, two and a half hour battle. The win gave Serbia their first ticket to a Fed Cup semi and the right to face the much more experienced Russians in the spring. They might be the underdogs there too, but a few big plays could give them another big win.
Whether the long shots will continue their run toward the Fed Cup trophy, or the favorites will ultimately triumph, is still unknown. But if they keep up their level of play, it sure looks like anything can happen through the rest of the year. And with halftime about to end, now's the perfect time for them to show us what they've got.