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Svetlana Kuznetsova Svetlana Kuznetsova (R) of Russia celebrates with Russian team captain Shamil Tarpischev (L) and other teammates after her win over Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain on day one of the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group Final between Spain and Russia at the Club de Campo on September 13, 2008 in Madrid, Spain. Kuznetsova won the match in two sets, 6-3 and 6-1, giving Russia a 2-0 lead over Spain.

Italy at Russia:  Bereft of its leading ladies Schiavone and Pennetta, the decimated Italian squad ventures to Moscow with perhaps more hope than conviction.  Crushing Italy on home soil in the 2007 final, Russia looks fully equipped to pummel the visitors into submission once again.  But such a prospect loomed before its quarterfinal against France, when the plucky, vastly outgunned guests showed little courtesy to their hosts.  A heroine of Russia’s historic comeback from a 0-2 deficit, Kuznetsova enters this tie in unimposing form after premature exits in Indian Wells, Miami, and Marbella last week.  Moreover, Saturday opponent Vinci squelched her Beijing title defense last fall.  The two-time major champion often musters her most impassioned, motivated efforts in Fed Cup, however, and she may benefit from sliding into the #2 position behind third-ranked Zvonareva.  Not a participant in February’s miracle, the top Russian has displayed generally solid albeit not overwhelming tennis this year and has thoroughly dominated Vinci, scoring four straight wins during which she lost six or fewer games.  Playing on neither green clay nor red clay in the last two weeks, Zvonareva will arrive in Moscow neither fatigued from recent exertions nor maladjusted to the surface.

Lethal against Italians throughout her career, the world #3 should collect her two singles rubbers, requiring the visitors to defeat Kuznetsova twice in two days.  And Tarpischev also can respond to any stumble from Sveta by substituting Monterrey champion Pavlyuchenkova, just outside the top 20 and a valiant Fed Cup competitor despite her youth.  With this host of options, home-court advantage, and a starless Italy, the somnolent Shamil should enjoy his weekend very much indeed.

Czech Republic at Belgium:  They may not end the first day even in wins, but these two teams enter it even in withdrawals.  Potentially a much more competitive semifinal, the advantage here tilted sharply from the home squad to the visitors when Clijsters announced her withdrawal.  Somewhat softening the blow was the ensuing withdrawal of Safarova, replaced by the less reliable, less powerful Benesova.  Belgium counters the Czech Republic’s left-handed duo with Indian Wells semifinalist Wickmayer, who should relish the opportunity to snatch some of the spotlight from her renowned compatriots.  Resenting her status as the third-best player in her small country, the forehand-thumping firecracker will find her maturity tested as the flagship for her nation’s otherwise puny fleet.  How will Wickmayer respond to the pressure of winning two rubbers (and perhaps three) for the home team?

Her opposing flagship Kvitova has cooled considerably after a torrid, two-title start to 2011, winning just one total match on the North American hard courts.  En route to one of those titles, she outlasted Wickmayer in a third-set tiebreak; three of their five previous meetings, in fact, have reached 5-5 in the third set.  Drama thus may develop in a potentially tie-turning third rubber, but ambushes could occur in any of the weekend’s matches.  While Belgian #2 Flipkens defeated Kvitova a year ago, Benesova has troubled Wickmayer in both of their previous meetings.  Like Tarpischev, though, Czech captain Petr Pala has more ammunition in his arsenal than his opponent.  The pugnacious Zahlavova Strycova not only could thrive in the hostile atmosphere of Charleroi but should forge a doubles partnership with Benesova sturdier than any potential Belgian duo.  After consecutive semifinal losses in 2009 and 2010, the Czech Republic must feel especially determined to break through that barrier this year.

USA at Germany:  The architect of two unexpected finals runs, American captain Mary Joe Fernandez voiced justifiable optimism about a tie less beyond the reach of her squad than their clash with Russia in the same round last year.  Absent from this weekend, however, is the competitive spark of Bethanie Mattek-Sands that proved so critical in fueling that upset.  The United States instead rests its hopes upon two teenagers ranked outside the top 75, although Christina McHale has risen swiftly in recent weeks after victories over Kuznetsova, Kleybanova, and Hantuchova.  Once labeled the future of American tennis, world #81 Oudin has fallen well short of achieving that promise and struggles to cope with the high bounce on clay.  Yet surely the uniformly heavy-hitting German quartet of Petkovic, Goerges, Lisicki, and Groenefeld also would have preferred a hard court over the surface that dulls their power.  Fortunately for all concerned, the Porsche Arena generally has played much faster than a conventional clay court.  The Americans will possess a considerable advantage if they can preserve the tie until the final rubber, when Huber and King would face a German squad without a notable doubles specialist.  Bolstering their chances is Oudin’s Miami success against Goerges, which suggests that the tie could rest upon the shoulders of Fed Cup novice McHale in the fourth rubber.  Don’t discount these overachieving underdogs too easily.

France at Spain:  Frustrated by the historic Russian comeback discussed above, French captain Nicolas Escude publicly blamed then-singles #2 Alize Cornet for the team’s debacle.  One tie later, one wonders how the sensitive Cornet will respond to his criticism as well as her own disappointment.  Unlikely to provide much assistance is the controversy-drenched Rezai, who has wandered through a disastrous start to 2011 after what had appeared a breakthrough in Madrid last year.  Cast into these uncertain waters, Escude wisely selected the sporadically injured Razzano for singles duty despite her lower ranking.  On the other hand, controversy also has encircled the home team, which staged a short-lived Fed Cup boycott in order to extract greater support for women’s tennis from the national federation.  Unlike the French, though, the Spaniards stood united in their bold gambit, displaying a mutual loyalty that could make their seasoned group greater than the sum of its parts.  Designed to disrupt fragile minds, the quirky point construction and dazzling drop shots of Martinez Sanchez should disrupt the rhythm of the visitors.  This trans-Pyrenean encounter therefore might reverse the outcome of the Davis Cup quarterfinal that their nations contested last year.  But first we expect an avalanche of service breaks throughout a weekend populated by shaky servers, ruthless returners, and durable defenders.

Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson Open

Serbia at Slovakia:  Distinctly the most glamorous tie of the weekend, this collision also could prove the most suspenseful.  Fractured by an acerbic fracas last year, the Serbian team has regained at least a semblance of unity as Ivanovic joins Jankovic in a partnership perhaps arranged merely to ensure their Olympic eligibility.  Or could a Davis Cup title last December have inspired Serbia’s feuding stars to bury their grudges and pursue a Fed Cup crown in 2012?  Whether their divisions persist below the surface remains a question crucial to this challenging weekend.  Unglued by the pressure of playing before her compatriots last year, Ivanovic seems more likely to shine in a stadium where expectations lie upon her opponents. Although she has carved out a winning record against Hantuchova, Ana has struggled against both Slovaks before and may require more time to recover from her loss to Clijsters in one of Miami’s most memorable matches.  Meanwhile, Jankovic has split her four clay meetings with Hantuchova and lost to her in Fed Cup last year (during the weekend that provoked the intra-Serbian scuffle).  Pitting soaring prodigy Jovanovski against Cibulkova is the opening rubber, which should tilt towards the diminutive but more clay-savvy Slovak.  If the tie arrives at a decisive doubles rubber, as seems plausible, the home squad should rely upon its superior chemistry to repeat its 2010 victory over Serbia.

Ukraine at Australia:  Without the Bondarenko sisters to shelter them, Ukraine heads to distant climes without a single player in the top 100.  Providing scant solace is the absence of Australian #1 Stosur, who entrusts leadership of the home squad to the eminently capable Groth.  The former Slovak leads the WTA in aces this season while marching into the top 30 for the first time, a status that neither of her Ukrainian opponents ever has approached.  Thriving in the Fed Cup atmosphere, Groth scored a stunning victory over Schiavone in the World Group quarterfinals a round ago and should comfortably capture both of her rubbers.  Beckoning for Cup neophytes Sophie Ferguson and Sally Peers, then, is a chance to stir national pride without incurring significant pressure.

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We return shortly with thoughts on the Mediterranean playground of Rafael Nadal.

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Eagerly exploiting the faster surface, Sharapova followed her Birmingham finals appearance with a suffocating salvo to ignite her Wimbledon campaign.  The transition from clay to grass proved a bit less hospitable, however, to two terrors of the terre battue.  Unceremoniously ushered out of their All England Club debuts, Verdasco and Stosur failed to translate their six combined clay finals into the language of grass.  But their defeats speak less about their shortcomings than about the prodigious achievements of Nadal and Federer in winning “Channel Slams” during the past two years.  A relatively obscure feat in the tennis statistical pantheon, the Roland Garros-Wimbledon sweep ranks with the elusive Indian Wells-Miami double.  One Andy came within a single victory of that rare accomplishment last year, while another Andy duplicated that near-miss this year.  He opens Centre Court and our Day 3 preview.

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Llodra vs. Roddick (5) (Centre Court, 1st match):  Facing a rather indifferent field at an ATP Eastbourne event not to be confused with its high-quality WTA counterpart, the left-handed Frenchman served and volleyed his won to a rare singles title.  A week earlier, Roddick fell to unheralded Israeli Dudi Sela at the Queens Club event two hours to the north.  Do these divergent grass-court results portend a potential upset?  The American swiftly dispatched one of his compatriots in his All England Club debut, while the perhaps weary Llodra eked out a four-set win over an unimposing American qualifier.  In their Davis Cup meeting on a fast indoor surface two years ago, Roddick prevailed in one of the tightest straight-set matches that one could imagine, which featured just a single break of serve.  Since both players don’t hesitate to move forward on grass, we should see shoals of volleys and passing shot attempts with few points lasting more than four or five strokes.  Possessing an elegant backhand volley, the Frenchman displays more grace at the net than Roddick but often proves a little too clever and artsy for his own good.  The fifth seed’s more functional, less exuberant style should carry him through unless his timing falters as badly as it did against Tipsarevic in 2008.  In order to counter the charging Llodra, he needs to be more aggressive than usual on returns and intelligent with his passing-shot placement.

Makarova vs. Venus (2) (Centre Court, 2nd match):  The other Eastbourne champion, Makarova faces an equally imposing challenge as her male counterpart yet enters this encounter on an eight-match winning streak that included straight-set triumphs over Pennetta, Petrova, Kuznetsova, Stosur, and Azarenka.  Against the aging, over-matched Rossana de los Rios, Venus looked as potent as ever on her favorite surface; she started the match with a 119-mph delivery and was largely untouchable in her service games.   Remaining firmly entrenched inside the baseline, she cracked crisp groundstrokes from both sides without slipping into recklessness (most of the time).  Nevertheless, the elder Williams seems a different player every time that she enters the court this year, looking impressive in the early rounds of both previous Slams before donating a sudden clunker.  As a result of Makarova’s solid serve, this match should feature more holds than we’re accustomed to seeing from the breaktastic WTA.  The Russian is an expert at saving break points (10 of 11 in the Eastbourne final), a talent towards which lefties are naturally predisposed; ask if you want to know why.  Although Makarova probably can’t secure the massive upset, don’t be surprised to see one tight set before Venus takes control.

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Djokovic (3) vs. Dent (Q) (Centre Court, 3rd match):  Stubbornly adhering to retro serve-and-volley tactics, Dent is far from a legitimate contender at any significant tournament but still possesses the weapons to occasionally ambush someone who is.  Susceptible to an opportunistic underdog, Djokovic coughed up a two-set lead to Melzer at Roland Garros before nearly falling to Rochus in his Wimbledon opener.  Contrasting with the Serb’s recently wayward delivery, Dent’s elephantine serve comprises a formidable weapon on grass, allowing him to hold with sufficient regularity to put pressure on opponents’ service games and bomb his way into some tiebreaks.  Unless the American collapses as he did against Soderling in Paris, he should test Djokovic’s ever-shaky nerves by remaining within range for most of the match.  Considering the gulf between Dent’s superlative serve and erratic return, any breaks probably will be terminal.  The match should provide Djokovic with an opportunity to hone his timing and his concentration for a possible collision with Hewitt two rounds ahead.

Korolev vs. Hewitt (15) (Court 1, 2nd match):  Seeking to extend the momentum from his unexpected Halle title, the Aussie hopes to avoid the untimely demises of compatriots Stosur and Dellacqua.  A relentlessly ferocious ball-striker, Korolev should prosper on the grass, although his mediocre footwork sometimes leaves him off balance for his mighty groundstrokes on surfaces with little reaction time.  Whereas Hewitt will seek to stretch the Russian laterally along the baseline, his adversary will attempt to shorten points with constant risk-taking and unflinching aggression.  Almost everything must go right for him, however, in order to overcome the Aussie’s consistency, superior technique, and far superior tenacity.  In a best-of-five format, it’s easier to weather a temporary storm and wait for the deluge of errors that inevitably will succeed the deluge of winners.  Here, Hewitt’s patience could prove a more valuable attribute than anything related to a racket.

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Wickmayer (15) vs. Flipkens (Court 12, 3rd match):  Welcome to the next generation’s edition of Henin-Clijsters.  While this second intra-Belgian rivalry certainly lacks the intensity of its ancestor, this clash provides an intriguing means of measuring the progress of these ascending stars.  Still recovering from an elbow injury, Wickmayer avenged a Birmingham loss to Alison Riske in an opening three-setter, while Flipkens has sizzled during a semifinal run at the UNICEF Open.  Ranked lower than her compatriot, her high-risk, first-strike style may prove more effective on grass and allow her to post the mini-upset.  Built more for durability and consistency, Wickmayer often struggles to identify the appropriate moments to unleash her aggression and either flinches before pulling the trigger or pulls it indiscriminately until it jams.  Fortune favors the brave, and so do the lawns of the All England Club, so it’ll be intriguing to see which youngster will seize the day more authoritatively.

Troicki vs. Melzer (16) (Court 14, 1st match):  Often the forgotten Serb behind the trio of Djokovic, Jankovic, and Ivanovic, Troicki showcases an exquisite two-handed backhand that should produce engaging cross-court rallies with Melzer’s whipping lefty forehand.  An intriguing counterpoint to the net-rushing Austrian, the Serb has honed a full arsenal of passing shots that should produce a classic grass-court duel of cat-and-mouse.  In this match, raw power will be trumped by placement, guile, reflexes, and dexterity, always a compelling entertainment in the first week.  After Roland Garros, we wrote that the aging Melzer probably couldn’t reproduce his achievement at another Slam, but he has a comfortable draw that might allow him to reach the second week for the second consecutive major. 

Groth vs. Oudin (33) (Court 14, 3rd match):  Largely failing to capitalize upon her US Open quarterfinal run, Oudin expertly defused the powerful game of Groenefeld in the first round and now tackles a similar assignment.  Agile and low to the ground, the pugnacious American compensates for her lack of a powerful serve with seamless movement and a forehand much more formidable than her size would suggest.  Surprisingly charging to the second week of Roland Garros, the Slovakian-Australian exploited an open draw similar to the soft section in which she currently finds herself.  The match will be decided mostly on Groth’s terms, for she possesses the capacity either to hit Oudin off the court or to hit herself off the court.  In New York last year, Oudin feasted upon erratic, temperamental baseline sluggers, which indicates that she’ll approach this contest with confidence and an intelligent plan. 

Briefly noted:  A couple of you wrote for insight on Wozniak-Jankovic, which perplexes us a bit because the Serb has won all three of their previous meetings in straight sets and appears to have emerged this spring from her protracted slump.  Meanwhile, the Canadian enters the match with a meager 14-14 record in 2010 with losses to opponents such as Cornet, Pironkova, and Heather Watson.   Consequently, it’s difficult to see an upset here unless Jankovic enters as flat as she was at the Roland Garros semifinal.  Although grass is her weakest surface, she couldn’t have asked for a more benign draw…until a Belgian arrives in the quarters.  The new pride of Lithuanian tennis, Ricardas Berankis has won four consecutive matches at the All England Club and will have a legitimate chance to threaten Queens Club semifinalist Lopez, who may still be nursing a shoulder injury incurred at Eastbourne.  Famous for a slightly tarnished upset over Venus on these very lawns, Karolina Sprem pursues more marquee prey in a second-round collision with Clijsters, superb at one Slam in her comeback and a disaster at the other.  A great serving day for the Croat could spell a spot of bother for the eighth seed, who can look tentative against players who are constantly taking chances and making things happen.  The Belgian’s nemesis at Indian Wells, Kleybanova faces a power-saturated duel with compatriot Alla Kudryavtseva, the architect of Sharapova’s demise in 2008 and nearly the architect of Venus’ demise in 2007.  Elsewhere, Teimuraz Gabashvili attempts to extend his momentum from clay to grass as he battles flamboyant German Kohlschreiber for the right to share a show court with Roddick, who fell to the Russian a month ago and to the German two years ago.  If you fancy a bit of doubles, meanwhile, check out Marray/Murray against Nestor/Zimonjic on one of the small outer courts, where a raucous home crowd doubtless will congregate to support their favorite Scot.  

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Keep sharing your comments and suggesting intriguing matches for the days ahead!