February 6, 2014

A Shot at Redemption

This year's Australian Open was one of many storylines -- from young stars' breakthroughs to reversals of long losing streaks, from huge upsets to near misses. And this weekend as the first round of Fed Cup gets underway, the ladies have an opportunity to follow up on their performances in Melbourne, and maybe even go one better.

Italy vs. U.S.A.

Both these teams are missing their top players in this tie so the result is truly up in the air, but for a couple athletes there's a huge opportunity to make a big statement. American Alison Riske, ranked #46 in the world, reached the third round Down Under with wins over Elena Vesnina and Yanina Wickmayer -- her third straight Major with at least two victories. She's never played Fed Cup before, so this will be a good test for the rising talent. But eyes might be slightly more focused on Karin Knapp this weekend. The largely unknown Italian burst into the spotlight when she showed she wouldn't give up against Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open second round, and somehow found the strength to withstand a three-and-a-half hour match in grueling heat. With teammates like Sara Errani and Flavia Pennetta sitting out this round, she'll get top billing on the roster, and there may be no better time to prove that loss is behind her.

Spain vs. Czech Republic

The Spaniards have plenty of talent on their side of the court this weekend, and Carla Suarez Navarro, who'd been my dark horse pick for Melbourne did bow out a bit early. But she might find herself hard-pressed against the wily Czechs, Fed Cup champions two years in a row, especially with Lucie Safarova champing at the bit for revenge. The world #28 was the only one to give eventual Aussie champion Na Li any kind of trouble last month, running through the first set and holding match point in their third round match. She hasn't been back on court since that heartbreaking loss, but if she can regroup and rebound now, she could make quick work of her opponents -- if only to prove she has what it takes in the clutch.

Slovakia vs. Germany

This tie has some of the most potential for fireworks this weekend, with Sydney finalist Angelique Kerber and back-on-the-radar Andrea Petkovic leading a strong German team. Even Julia Goerges, down substantially from her career high ranking, is fresh off an upset of Sara Errani in Melbourne and a run to the semis in Pattaya City. But watch out for Dominika Cibulkova, the Cinderella runner-up in Australia who barely broke a sweat as she beat four top twenty players back to back. She had a disappointing end to what was by far her best Grand Slam run, unable to get on the board in the second set, but she's more than proven she can hit with the biggest hitters out there and could use this opportunity to make up for the trophy now missing from her mantle.

Australia vs. Russia

Last year's runner-up Russian squad has lost a bit of its luster for this first round -- missing Maria Sharapova as well as consistent stars like Maria Kirilenko, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Nadia Petrova and others, only one player, little known #158 Victoria Kan, is ranked in the top two hundred in singles. That's going to open the door wide for the Australians, but veteran Sam Stosur may not be the one to beat here. Though she hasn't had a terrible start to the year, the standout for the Aussies may be Casey Dellacqua whose fourth round showing at her homeland Slam brought her back up into the top hundred. Most of her Fed Cup wins have come in the doubles rubbers, but now that she's proven herself on the solo court too I wouldn't be surprised if she became the clincher this weekend.

World Group II

It's not all about the Fed Cup main draw though -- the teams vying to play for the trophy next year also have a lot on the line. Sweden's Johanna Larsson, who put up quite a fight against Victoria Azarenka in their opening round in Melbourne will take on a Polish team helmed by Agnieszka Radwanksa, probably still smarting from having missed a second Major final. And Junior Roland Garros and Wimbledon champion Belinda Bencic, who won her first big girls' match at a Slam against uber-veteran Kimiko Date Krumm, makes her debut on the Swiss team against a French squad led by always spunky Alize Cornet and mixed doubles titleist Kristina Mladenovic.

But perhaps the highest profile woman to hit the courts this weekend will be Melbourne breakthrough Eugenie Bouchard, a semifinalist in her first trip Down Under. The young Canadian was certainly helped as her colleagues cleared the field for her, but she stayed strong against an injured Ana Ivanovic in the quarters and was able to avoid a rout by Na Li a round later. Now ranked in the top twenty, pressure is on to prove her run Down Under was no fluke, and she has a fairly good shot at doing so. She and her Canadian teammates take on a Serbian team which is missing stars like Ivanovic, world #8 Jelena Jankovic and always-tricky Bojana Jovanovski. With the biggest threat on the other side of the net a triple-digit ranked Vesna Dolonc, Genie has ample opportunity to boost her confidence before facing off against bigger foes -- and if her performance in Australia is any indication, there will certainly many more of those in the future.

Of course there is a lot more at stake in Fed Cup than each individual player's scoreline -- this, unlike other tournaments, is a team effort. But any one of these ladies can put in a showing this weekend that not only boosts her nation to the next level, but does the same for herself, as well. And after the fight they each showed over the past month, I'd expect nothing short of the best from all of them.

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