November 1, 2012

A New World: Fed Cup Final Preview

Twenty years ago the two countries contesting this year's Fed Cup didn't even exist. Part of an Eastern Europe undergoing serious revolutions in the early nineties, they were making the biggest headlines far from the tennis court. But the defending champion Czechs and the barely initiated Serbs, playing for just the second time in the World Group, sure have come a long way in the past two decades, and the battle they put on this weekend could be one for the history books.

The Czech Singles

The singles rubbers could provide fireworks from the start -- both teams come with some top-grade talent, but there are questions over everyone's heads. Petra Kvitova is coming off her second trip to the WTA Championships, but the 2011 winner had to pull out after one round robin match in Istanbul with a viral illness. She had a somewhat slower start to this season -- at this time last year she was a stone's throw from the #1 ranking, these days she's just within the top ten. Still, with two titles this year and a greatly improved hardcourt record, she's easily the most accomplished of the bunch. She doesn't have a lot of history against her opponents, but she has won both matches she's played against the Serb stars in the past two years and might be the Czechs best chance to get on the board early.

Lucie Safarova has had a slightly more volatile year. She began 2012 with wins over Vera Zvonareva, Caroline Wozniacki and Sam Stosur, and cracked the top twenty for the first time in her career back in August after reaching the Montreal semifinal. She's now at a career-high #17 ranking, but the twenty-five year old won only one match at her last three events and has notched eleven opening round losses this year. She also hasn't been the most clutch Fed Cup player for the Czechs, winning just six of ten rubbers she's played, and with a 4-7 record against her opponents it's going to be hard to turn that momentum around.

The Serbian Singles

The Serbs aren't without their own challenges, though, but Ana Ivanovic will be out to prove the comeback she's put together the last three year is worth some consideration. The former #1 hasn't won a title all year, but she did reach her first Major quarterfinal since 2008 and score victories over Caroline Wozniacki and Marion Bartoli in Indian Wells. Having almost halved her ranking in the past twelve months, she's starting to look like the player we know she can be -- she's only lost to three players out of the top fifty this year, and one of those was Venus Williams, so she's not putting up many "embarrassing" losses anymore. Still, it would be nice to see her perform more consistently against the top ten, and maybe score a victory or two against the biggest hitters.

Such consistency is exactly what Jelena Jankovic seems to be lacking these days. Another former top-ranked player, the twenty-seven year old has struggled to hold onto leads this year and squandered match points more than a few times during the season. She hasn't won a trophy in over two years and, while she made a couple finals this year, she lost both pretty handily and failed to make much of a dent at any of the Majors. Her only victory over a player ranked higher than her this year -- then-#5 Sam Stosur in Dubai -- came all the way back in February, and the vast majority of her losses since then have been to players ranked lower than her. On the plus side -- admittedly a small one -- she is 5-2 against the Czechs in singles and holds an impressive 27-7 career history in Fed Cup singles rubbers, so experience might give her and her team a lift. They might need it.

The Doubles Rubber

With the singles matches this weekend largely up for grabs, the doubles action takes on some added importance, and experience looks to be squarely on the side of the Czechs. Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka have both put in some solid singles performances this year, but together they've really shined. Runners-up at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the WTA Championships this year, they've also won four Tour titles and Olympic Silver. Comparatively the likely pairing of Bojana Jovanovski and Aleksandra Krunic is hugely untested. If the championship comes down to this rubber, odds certainly favor a repeat of last year, so the Serbs will certainly want to make a statement early, and hope they can wrap things up before it gets too heated.

With so much depth on the Czech team, it seems like the defending champions have the slight advantage in this weekend's play. But if the leaders on the Serbian team play to their potential, they could easily tip the entire apple cart. And while such a revolution may be nothing compared to what these countries have endured in the past, it could set the stage for a new era in their tennis histories.

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