April 17, 2014

Fed Cup Semifinal Preview: Stealing the Spotlight

The two teams that will ultimately contest this year's Fed Cup championship will be decided this weekend, and though the four countries in the semis have some long and storied histories, there sure seems to be some new blood in the mix. And the way this year's gone so far, the stand-out performances may not come from the players you'd expect.

Germany vs. Australia

There'll be a lot of high-ranking power on the court in Brisbane, with world #7 Angelique Kerber leading the charge for the Germans and former U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur talking the helm for the Aussies. But neither has had a particularly good year -- Stosur, now barely in the top twenty, hasn't won more than two matches at an event since Melbourne, while Kerber, a quarterfinalist in Miami, has nevertheless lost to then-#107 Tsvetana Pironkova and little-known Maria-Teresa Torro Flor. It doesn't mean, of course, that they won't be favorites this weekend, or that they won't come through when buoyed by their country's support -- still, a couple others might put a new spin on things.

Doubles stars Casey Dellacqua and Ashleigh Barty have had their share of success when paired up -- together they reached the final of three Slams last year -- but they're even starting to thrive on their own. Young Barty -- she's only seventeen -- still has to qualify for most singles events, but she did beat Kiki Bertens and Daniela Hantuchova in Brisbane. Meanwhile veteran Dellacqua reached the fourth round of her hometown Major in January and followed it up by taking out Kirsten Flipkens and Roberta Vinci on her way to the Indian Wells quarters. For the Germans look for Andrea Petkovic to solidify her comeback -- the one-time top ten player is back at #28 in the world, and is fresh off a title in Charleston, where she knocked off three higher seeds. And Julia Goerges, who had briefly fallen into triple digits at the start of the year, has managed wins over Elena Vesnina and Sara Errani this year. If either one plays to her potential, there are few on the Australians' side that could stop them.

Italy vs. Czech Republic

We could potentially see more fireworks in the tie being contested in the Czech Republic, where the top-ranked teams face off. Here again the higher ranked players have some of the less impressive records on the year. The Czech's Petra Kvitova did make the quarters in Miami, but with six three-set matches already this year, her wins haven't come easy. And the Italians, missing their most successful player this season, are instead lead by Sara Errani, who's lost mostly to players outside the top ten this year, and Roberta Vinci, who's somehow only won two singles matches this year.

Instead it may be time for others to shine. Lucie Safarova, who won her first title in over five years last fall in Quebec City, was the only woman to take a set off Na Li on her way to the Australian Open title and came through for her compatriots in a big way during the first round of Fed Cup. She also reached the quarters in Charleston with her ninth career win over on-paper favorite Sam Stosur. And Klara Koukalova has reached three finals this year, even winning a title in Florianopolis. Both seem to be having career-making years and this weekend might just be the next big step for either. But no one should ignore Italy's Camila Giorgi, a surprise finalist in Katowice this past weekend. Now a stone's throw from the top fifty, she's pulled off six upsets this year, the biggest over Maria Sharapova in Indian Wells. She might not get top billing this weekend, but she could be a clincher if things get tough.

It always gets interesting when we come down to the wire at Fed Cup -- the team spirit so often brings out another level of play that a simple trophy just can't always elicit. Perhaps that's why this weekend's dark horses have so much potential to deliver big wins for their homelands. And whoever comes out on top will know they've earned it.

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