Belgium vs. Japan
It what will likely be the most under-the-radar tie in the World Group playoffs, little-heralded Japan will take on a Clijsters-less Belgium. With no player ranked in the top two hundred in singles, the visiting Europeans will have to dig deep to make a dent, and the Japanese will look to take advantage. Twenty-two year old Ayumi Morita hasn't scored many wins this year, but she did notch victories over the likes of Ana Ivanovic and Petra Kvitova in 2011. And uber-veteran Kimiko Date-Krumm, just one ranking spot below her countrywoman, has the experience to lead her team back to the big leagues. And this might be the perfect opportunity for them to really steal the spotlight.
Slovak Republic vs. Spain
second-place finish in Barcelona and looks ready to turn her year around. And Daniela Hantuchova, the winningest Fed Cup player on the team, already has a title to her name this year. Against a slate of Spaniards led by sub-sixty ranked Silvia Soler-Espinoza, admittedly a woman who has been climbing the ladder this year, you have to give the edge to the eastern Europeans.
U.S. vs. Ukraine
The U.S. looks to make its return to the World Group when it takes on recently-ousted Ukraine, and they're bringing out the big guns to do it. Serena Williams and #1 doubles player Liezel Huber lead the pack along with rising stars Christina McHale and Sloane Stephens. It's a relatively young team, but one packed with talent, and it could be a chance for the newbies on the squad to get some invaluable playing time. Their opponents haven't made a big dent in the rankings, so it shouldn't be too tough a weekend. But they shouldn't be too glib -- Lesia Tsurenko, yet to crack the top hundred, has nevertheless beaten Shahar Peer and Francesca Schiavone this year and might prove to be a challenge. Still, the U.S. looks poised to advance easily, which might set the entire team up for more success this year.
Australia vs. Germany
champ Sam Stosur leads her team against four top-twenty German players. But injury may somewhat dampen the quality of play -- Andrea Petkovic returns to play after a low back stress fracture forced her out of the Australian Open and Sabine Lisicki, who left the Charleston court in tears with an ankle sprain, will sit the sidelines. But with players like Angelique Kerber and Julia Goerges pinch-hitting, the Germans should have what it takes to roll through the weekend.
Serbia vs. Russia
The stakes only go higher when we move onto the World Group. Four-time champions Russia have home field advantage against the upstart Serbs, but without their top two players, they might be at a disadvantage. Veteran Svetlana Kuznetsova is famously fickle and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova hasn't held her own much this year. That leaves world #21 Maria Kirilenko carrying the torch, and hopefully she'll be able to handle it. On the opposing side, the burden is on Ana Ivanovic's shoulders -- back at #15 she's passed compatriot Jelena Jankovic in the rankings and has had the most success on the team this year. And for the the player(s) who eventually emerge victorious this weekend, it could set the course for the rest of the season.
Italy vs. Czech Republic
champion Czechs will try to follow up on their first-round success when they take on the Italians, who captured the crown the previous two years. Wimbledon titleist Petra Kvitova teams with Charleston finalist Lucie Safarova and a pair of Grand Slam doubles champions, so there's plenty of skill on the slate. But everyone on the Italian slate is ranked in the top thirty for singles -- and three of them are top twenty in doubles. Their secret weapon may in fact be Sara Errani, who won both titles just last week in Barcelona, and seems to be having her breakout season. While the Czechs are probably the on-paper favorites, this battle could go down to the wire, and I'm not sure I'd be surprised to see the upset.
So as the ladies take to the courts this weekend, there's a lot on the line. Not everyone has a shot at the Fed Cup trophy this year, but that doesn't mean they can't all make a big difference in their seasons. And a good showing over the next few days could be just what they each need.