February 9, 2020

Fed Cup Follies

Fed Cup is -- and Davis Cup used to be, though I'm not so familiar with the new format and don't really have enough evidence to say the statement does or does not stand anymore -- always a little strange. With each round often taking place right after the Majors, it often surprises me how many of the sport's top player show up for their countries after a grueling fortnight (though, in many cases, the athletes probably played much less at the Slams than they'd hoped). And maybe it's just because of that timeline that we see such interesting and unexpected results at these events, and this year was no different.

Some of the ties were runaways -- Germany blanked Brazil, winning all three of their singles and their only doubles rubber, and Elise Mertens lived up to her potential to help Belgium advance over Kazakhstan -- but even then there were surprises. Belinda Bencic was stunned by world #185 Leylah Fernandez, but Jil Teichmann was able to pull out the big guns for Switzerland and pull them out against a Bianca Andreescu-less Canada (the defending U.S. Open champ was slated to play doubles, but didn't have to take the court). And two-time Slam winner Naomi Osaka committed fifty errors against upstart Sara Sorribes Tormo, while veteran and soon-to-be-retiree Carla Suarez Navarro was surgical in her two wins, lifting Spain above Japan, 3-1.

But the more interesting results came in the closer ties. Russia was surprisingly challenged by Romania, who was playing without Simona Halep -- while early 2020 standout Ekaterina Alexandrova managed wins in her singles matches, world #38 Veronika Kudermetova was upset in both of her rubbers. Russia eked out the win in doubles in order to advance. The Netherlands, on the other hand, wasn't able to capitalize on the success of their top star -- while world #8 Kiki Bertens was able to win on her own, beating a recently struggling Aryna Sabalenka on day two, the Belorussian doubles specialist was able to rally with partner Aliaksandra Sasnovich to clinch the decider.

Of course, though, all eyes were on the U.S., which brought some serious firepower to their tie: newly-minted Melbourne champion Sofia Kenin, perennial heavyweight Serena Williams, rising star Alison Riske, and everyone's favorite teen Coco Gauff. They were the clear favorites against Latvia and got off to a strong start on Friday with Kenin easing past former world #11 Anastasija Sevastova and Serena eking out a two-tiebreak victory over 2017 French Open champ Jelena Ostapenko (who, by the way hasn't won a single main draw match at Roland Garros outside that breakout year). But things turned around sharply Saturday as both Americans lost their reverse matches, Williams getting stunned by Sevastova in three sets for her first ever Fed Cup singles defeat. But as is so often the case, Kenin had to get right back to work for her third match in two days, teaming up with her Australian Open doubles partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands to decide the win.

Do the results this weekend give a broader picture of the state of these players' games? Maybe. Kenin's played a lot of ball this year, so it makes sense she might be a little exhausted. On the other hand, I'm a little surprised to see Serena's less-than-dominating performance and Osaka's messy match. As for the players who stood out -- Alexandrova's solid results certainly suggest her ranking is only climbing from here, while Bertens can certainly use her wins to shore up her season. We'll get a better idea of where everyone stands in the next few weeks, of course. And hopefully, by the time they're back on court for their countries in a couple month's time, hopefully they'll come out swinging.

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