April 19, 2013

Fed Cup Semi Preview: A Chance to Shine

It sure has been an interesting couple of months on the WTA Tour -- we've seen the inevitable resurgence of Serena Williams, the comebacks of long-forgotten players like Alize Cornet and Sorana Cirstea, and the emergence of young stars like Madison Keys and Heather Watson. But it hasn't been all good news for the ladies, and in this weekend's Fed Cup action, a couple will look to change all that.

Italy vs. Czech Republic

The Two-time defending champion Czechs take on an Italian team who's no stranger to winning themselves. And while both squads boast a slew of high-ranking veterans, there's still plenty of room for surprises.

The top-ranked doubles team in the world is concentrating on the singles rubbers for Italy this time around, but it might be the lesser-known Roberta Vinci -- champion in Katowice last week -- who's a little more sure of her game. That's not to say Acapulco winner Sara Errani should be ignored -- she made the finals in Paris and Dubai and the quarters at both American hardcourt Premiers -- but she hasn't quite grabbed the headlines she did this time last year. Still, the bigger opportunities lie with some of the more historically heralded players on the team. Flavia Pennetta -- the first Italian to break the top ten -- and 2011 French Open titleist Francesca Schiavone have both fallen down the rankings of late. Pennetta has been hampered by a wrist injury since last spring while Schiavone has lost in five first rounds this year. Paired for the doubles rubber, they'll both have the chance to prove how relevant they still are.

They'll be tested, of course, by Czech stars Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova who, despite being one of the winning-est pairs of 2012, haven't won an event together since last October. They've got a good history, though, and should be able to come together and represent. The bigger spotlight will likely be on singles specialist Lucie Safarova -- after shocking her way to the Montreal semifinals and securing the Fed Cup crown for her team last fall, the now-world #25 has had a handful of opening round losses herself this year. While she has a losing record against Vinci -- they've met three times -- she did win her only meeting with Errani, albeit almost four years ago. If she can find the momentum she had late last year, though, and harness the support of teammates like Petra Kvitova, she could become again the clincher for her country.

Russia vs. Slovak Republic

The Russians come to this Fed Cup weekend missing their biggest star, but there's still plenty of firepower in their ranks. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova is coming off a trophy in Monterrey and a return to the top twenty, while Maria Kirilenko had a solid run to the Indian Wells semis and ended a five-year title drought when she beat Sabine Lisicki in Pattaya City. But the players heading up the doubles rubber may have a bit more to prove. Ekaterina Makarova has long been a contender, but really hit the radar with a win over Serena Williams in Melbourne last year and began her ascent up the rankings. She made the quarters in the 2013 Australian Open too, but only won two matches since. And Elena Vesnina, who proved the seventh time's a charm when she won her maiden title in January in Hobart, hasn't beaten a top-fifty player since leaving the Down Under. We've seen both these ladies do big things -- and not that long ago -- so hopefully this weekend they'll be able to turn things back in their favor.

Probably the least known players grace the roster of the underdog Slovak Republic. Nineteen-year-old Jana Cepelova is only just in the top hundred and hasn't much main draw play on Tour this year. And Magdalena Rybarikova, though near her career high ranking, has scored some big wins throughout her career, but is still overshadowed by higher-profile compatriots. Daniela Hantuchova, for example, will want to prove she deserves that attention as she continues her comeback from an ankle injury that caused her to miss all of the 2012 clay court season. But more critical might be the performance of Dominika Cibulkova who, for the second year in a row squandered a huge lead against a #1 player in Miami. She hasn't played since blowing that set-and-a-break advantage over Serena Williams last month and her performance this weekend will show just how much she has recovered -- both physically and mentally -- and with an opener against Pavlyuchenkova, she'll be tested from the start.

There's a lot at stake during this weekend's games, but for some players more than others. Sure, Fed Cup glory may be victory enough, but for those trying to put their seasons back on the uptrack, this could be their opportunity to make a an even bigger statement.

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