February 8, 2013

The New Faces of Fed Cup

The ladies take to the courts this weekend to contest their Fed Cup quarterfinals, and while there are more than a few powerhouse names in the draws, there are a couple fresher faces in the field. And they might just have what it takes to cause a stir during this year's battles.

Czech Republic vs. Australia

The two-time defending champion Czechs kick off their attempt to three-peat with a cadre of well-heeled athletes. Petra Kvitova may be a shade off her career high ranking, but is an impressive 16-6 when playing for her country, and Lucie Safarova, only 3-4 this year, was nevertheless the surprise star in the 2012 campaign. Meanwhile the duo of Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka rebounded from a second round loss in Melbourne to make the final in Paris -- if this tie comes down to the doubles rubber, the pair could very well seal the deal.

But the Australians could surprise us, and not in the way you'd think. Bumped out of the World Group last year, they return to the big girls' draw led by veteran Sam Stosur -- but with only one, hard-fought win on her record this year, the Aussies might look elsewhere for leadership. Former top-thirty singles player Jarmila Gajdosova is coming off a mixed doubles title at the Australian Open, and young Ashleigh Barty teamed with Casey Dellacqua for a surprising runners-up finish in the ladies' draw too. They might be the lesser-known names on the squad, but it certainly doesn't mean they can't grab the headlines this weekend.

U.S. vs. Italy

In a repeat of the 2009 and 2010 championship round, Italy will take on a Williams-less U.S. team in Rimini. The #1 doubles team of Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci will represent their country's bid for a fourth trophy, but the two top-twenty singles players will be focused on clinching the tie before they ever get to the last rubber. They'll want to bring their A-game, too -- Errani hasn't been able to repeat her successes from early last year and fell unceremoniously to Mona Barthel in the Paris final, while Vinci is only 5-4 on the season. And if the headliners split singles rubbers, the Italians may have to rely on sub-hundred players like Karin Knapp and Nastassja Burnett in doubles. And that could open the door for their opponents.

The Americans are not only missing their veterans, though -- Melbourne standout Sloane Stephens pulled out with (another?) ab strain and was replaced by rising star Jamie Hampton, playing singles in her first Fed Cup tie. With these absentees, fellow newbie Varvara Lepchenko is the leader for the U.S. -- still fresh to the sport's elite, she's only won one match this year, but having notched wins over Francesca Schiavone, Jelena Jankovic and Dominika Cibulkova in the past twelve months, she may be ready to deliver. One-time darlingMelanie Oudin will also be called on -- she's relegated to the doubles rubber with Liezel Huber, but a few good plays here might get her the confidence she needs to mount a comeback.

Russia vs. Japan

The Russians are no strangers to Fed Cup glory -- having won all four of their trophies in the last decade, they should have history on their side against the upstart Japanese, playing in their first World Group draw since 2007. The favorites will be missing some of their biggest stars, though -- perennial powerhouses Maria Sharapova, Nadia Petrova and resurgent Svetlana Kuznetsova are all off the docket -- but they could very well make up for it with players like Melbourne Cinderella Ekaterina Makarova and first-time titleist Elena Vesnina. Rounded out by teenager Magdalena Gasparyan, ranked well into triple digits, it might not be the A-list you expect, but these ladies know how to turn up the heat when needed.

Their opponents, though, have been known to cause a few upsets themselves over the years. Ayumi Morita repeat a career-best third round showing in Melbourne and upset top-seeded Ana Ivanovic in Pattaya City. Uber-veteran Kimiko Date Krumm, who's been playing Fed Cup since 1989, climbed her way back into the top hundred -- again -- with an upset of Nadia Petrova Down Under. A win over a tried and tested Russian team is far from certain, of course, but there's really no telling what could happen when national pride in on the line.

Serbia vs. Slovak Republic

Perhaps the most interesting quarterfinal, though, pits last year's runner-up Serbia against long-time also-ran Slovakia. Possibly unfortunate for the on-paper favorite, though, they'll be missing their top two players in Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic. That leaves Bojana Jovankovski leading a team completed by two teenagers and the world #92. Vesna Dolonc probably scored her best result last year in Moscow, where she made the quarterfinals, but Aleksandra Krunic and fifteen-year-old Ivana Jorovic have barely put up any numbers to speak of on Tour. But with a couple years of Fed Cup play under her belt, she might be the veteran on the squad this rubber.

The holes in the armor might give the Slovaks a chance to regroup. Dominika Cibulkova headlines the field, but seems to have created a pattern of one deep run followed by several early losses -- she made the final in Sydney, but that was the only time this year she's made it out of the second round. Veteran Daniela Hantuchova will also look to put some wins on her scoreboard -- plagued much of last year by injury that forced her to skip the French Open and played part in three subsequent Major first round losses, she did make the quarters in Sydney with a win over Sara Errani. Still, this tie could easily come down to the doubles rubber, allowing often spotty but certainly talented Magdalena Rybarikova a chance to shine. If the team performs to their ability, it wouldn't be the biggest shock to see an upset here.

There's a lot at stake for the ladies this weekend -- especially with so many lesser-known players getting a chance to shine. When all is said, I wouldn't be surprised to see some new contenders left battling for this year's Fed Cup trophy. And if they make some real strides over the next few days, it could set the stage for even more successes this season.

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