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Condemned to eternally roll a boulder up a rugged mountainside, the mythical figure of Sisyphus would complete that labor only to immediately undertake it anew.   Three months after hoisting their second straight Fed Cup title, Corrado Barazzutti’s sprightly squad perhaps could empathize with the perpetually toiling Greek as they open their title defense on an island far from Sicily.

Corrado Barattuzzi Francesca Schiavone (R) of Italy celebrates her victory over Melanie Oudin of USA with team captain Corrado Barattuzzi during the Federation Cup World Group Final between Italy and the USA at Circolo Tennis Rocco Polimeni on November 7, 2009 in Reggio Calabria, Italy.

The hard courts of Hobart will host an Australian team that suddenly has assembled an impressive singles pairing of world #5 Stosur and Jarmila Groth, whose career has surged after changing her surname and her passport.  Since the Italians will bring two top-20 players to this collision, however, they remain the slight favorites in a tie where all five matches should prove competitive.  Beyond their advantage in Fed Cup experience and exploits, Pennetta and Schiavone enjoyed far more memorable Australian Opens than did the two home hopes, who combined to collect just two victories there against seven by the Italians.  All too eager to delight the Aussie crowds, both Stosur and Groth slumped under the pressure in Melbourne, and this long-awaited World Group tie will test their nerves again.  Although last year’s Roland Garros runner-up avenged that loss to Schiavone last fall, she curiously has failed to win more than four games in any of the six sets that she has contested with Pennetta.  Famous for her characteristically Calabrian temper, the Italian has proved a poised competitor in Fed Cup and clinched both of her nation’s last two titles with composed performances.  Moreover, her confidence will have soared following a debut Grand Slam doubles title with fellow doubles #1 Dulko.  If Schiavone can defuse the stunning but raw game of Groth, therefore, the visitors probably will carry a 2-0 edge into Sunday that they will not squander.  Even if Australian can take the tie to the concluding doubles, Errani and Vinci will bring their undefeated record into a fascinating battle against Stosur and Stubbs.  One anticipates drama during plenty of individual sets in Tasmania but perhaps not in the overall scoreline.

Half a world away in Bratislava, the other engaging tie of the weekend pits the bifurcated halves of the former Czechoslovakia.  Braced to renew the internecine rivalry, the stylish Hantuchova and the resurgent Cibulkova hoist the Slovak flag together with 2009 Birmingham champion Rybarikova, who has sagged after initial promise.  Hampered by an injury that forced her withdrawal from Brisbane, former prodigy Hantuchova has faded into the twilight stages of her career but mustered one of her finer recent performances in last year’s World Group playoff against Serbia.  Literally rising above her stature, Cibulkova has added a startling degree of offense over the past year and scored an eye-opening victory over Wozniacki in Sydney.  The visitors will fancy their chances of reaching a third consecutive Fed Cup semifinal, though, for all three of their singles options acquitted themselves creditably in Melbourne and possess the combative streak that can insulate players from hostile surroundings.  Spearheading the charge is Australian Open quarterfinalist Kvitova, who conquered both Stosur and Pennetta in a fortnight that bolstered her Wimbledon breakthrough.  While Safarova competed resolutely against Zvonareva, Zahlavova Strycova toppled top-20 foe Rezai.  Yet all of the Czechs remain far less predictable than either of the Slovaks, so this tie could develop into a rollercoaster of momentum shifts within and between matches.  In the doubles, the Czechs have a slight but potentially vital edge with specialist Kveta Peschke and superior servers in Kvitova and Safarova.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates winning her second round match against Virginie Razzano of France during day three of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 19, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

When Sharapova enters Fed Cup, an Olympic year must lie just over the horizon.  Having participated in only one previous Fed Cup tie, she returns to a country where she has not showcased her talents since 2007 and has won just two matches in her career.  The three-time major champion grimly bulldozed through the Israeli team in 2008, adjusting with aplomb to the competition’s distinctive atmosphere.  On the Moscow indoor hard court, her recently erratic groundstrokes will not need to find the mark as regularly, so she should register her two matches in Russia’s victory column.  Both Razzano and Cornet surpassed expectations in Melbourne, however; the former threatened to take a set from Sharapova in the second round, while the latter nearly did the same against Clijsters a round later.  Despite the higher ranking of Pavlyuchenkova, one imagines that Tarpischev will reward the more experienced Kuznetsova for her previous Fed Cup service and her courageous performance in Australia.  The final opponent of Henin’s career, the Russian will have accumulated immense confidence after defeating Stosur and nearly Li in Sydney.  But will she have recovered physically from the longest women’s match in Grand Slam history?  If she falters against Cornet on the first day, which seems unlikely considering the Frenchwoman’s haplessness in Fed Cup, Tarpischev might substitute the WTA’s highest-ranked teenager against Sunday.  Pavlyuchenkova crushed projected Sunday opponent Razzano on an indoor hard court two years ago, whereas Kuznetsova hasn’t faced her in nearly seven years.  If outcomes reflect the lopsided talents of these two teams, though, Tarpischev will doze through another first-round romp.

More sleepwalking impends in Belgium, where Clijsters joins Wickmayer against a plucky American squad that upset an understaffed Russia last year en route to their second straight final.  As usual, the USA will aim to split the singles rubbers and pin their hopes on the doubles, where they hold a considerable advantage with Liezel Huber.  In order to realize that goal, they must rely on both Oudin and Mattek-Sands to overcome Wickmayer in singles, since Clijsters surely will sail bulletproof through the weekend.  The task does not tower quite as dauntingly as it might seem at first glance, for the Belgian #2 has struggled alarmingly since last year’s US Open despite reaching the final in Auckland after an arduous week of three-setters.  A feisty competitor who performs above her standard level in Fed Cup, Mattek-Sands shone on an indoor surface at the Hopman Cup and again in Hobart, although she suffered a discouraging first-round loss in Melbourne.  If she can find Wickmayer’s backhand more regularly than the Belgian finds her forehand, her sturdier confidence could translate into a minor upset.  Meanwhile, Oudin has shifted from prodigy to former prodigy as she has failed abjectly in rekindling the spark that ignited the 2009 US Open.  Somewhat less feckless in Fed Cup, she defeated Schiavone last fall and competed valiantly on Italian clay during the previous final.  With USA almost certain to enter the fourth rubber trailing 2-1, though, she will face not only a more talented opponent but the pressure of preserving the tie.  Lightning probably won’t strike Wickmayer twice.

We close with a few thoughts on the four World Group II ties:

Spain at Estonia:  Perhaps a more decisive factor than any player, the indoor hard court in Tallinn may frustrate dirt devils Martinez Sanchez and Suarez Navarro.  Despite a second-round exit at the Australian Open, top Estonian Kanepi enjoys greater firepower than either Spaniard and should overwhelm them with a barrage of mighty first blows.  Like the USA, Spain seeks only to split the singles and reach the doubles, where the experienced duo of Medina Garrigues and Llagostera Vives could shine.  Unlike the USA, they have an excellent chance of accomplishing that mission with the 527th-ranked Maret Ani playing the role of Wickmayer.  Perhaps more intriguing than the tennis here is the subplot that revolved around the miniature Fed Cup strike staged by the top Spanish women against their own tennis federation.  Ostensibly placated now, they could bolster their pleas for greater attention in Spain’s male-dominated tennis world by restoring their nation to the World Group in 2012.

Andrea Petkovic Andrea Petkovic of Germany celebrates winning a point in her quarterfinal match against Na Li of China during day nine of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 25, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Germany at Slovenia:  Frauleins with a future and an average ranking of #29, Petkovic and Goerges delivered an emphatic statement of intent in Melbourne with performances as notable for their poise as for their shot-making.  The two ball-bruising brunettes enter the tie distinctly favored against a Slovenian squad highlighted by doubles specialist Katarina Srebotnik.  Unless she decides to renege upon her retirement from singles, her chances of playing a meaningful match this weekend look slim to none.  On the other hand, Petkovic proved herself more frail than the French in Fed Cup last year (no small feat), and the youthful Germans may find an opponent worthy of their steel in Polona Hercog.  Two weeks after her 20th birthday, the lanky Slovenian #1 established herself in the top 50 during the past year but has lost all three of her matches in 2011.  Can the home crowd rejuvenate her?

Canada at Serbia:  Stripped of Jankovic and Ivanovic, the hosts suddenly confront a perilous situation against the dangerous albeit often injured Wozniak and an even brighter talent in the burly teenager Rebecca Marino.  Fortunately for Serbia, an equally promising teenager carries their banner in a bid to return to the World Group from which Russia expelled them in 2010.  One of the WTA’s better kept secrets, Bojana Jovanovski burst onto the international stage by sweeping to the Sydney semifinals past three top-20 players and boldly swiping a set from Zvonareva in Melbourne. Probably unable to secure victory single-handedly, she nevertheless could extend the tie to a decisive doubles rubber where anything could happen.

Ukraine at Sweden:  Weren’t the Bondarenko sisters planning to boycott Fed Cup this year?  Although newly married Alona remains aloof, Kateryna broke the ban and could inject some intrigue into what still seems a notably uninteresting tie.  No rising stars, aging legends, or electrifying games on display here.  Just an invigorating ferry ride from host city Helsingfors stands Hamlet’s castle, however, a much more scintillating destination.

 

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A rather painful episode of déjà vu occurred today for the star-crossed Richard Gasquet, who watched a two-set-and-break lead evaporate against Murray for the second time.  Probably better suited for the compressed best-of-three format, the Frenchman’s electrifying shotmaking fails to compensate for his lack of physical (and mental) fitness at majors.  With relatively little at stake, Murray deserves credit for staying focused until Gasquet faded once again; this instinctive will to compete comprises an essential trait of a champion.  Elsewhere, Taylor Dent cracked the fastest serve in Roland Garros history…and actually won the match.  (We know that Andy will be eyeing the radar tomorrow in an effort to eclipse that 149-mph bomb, but wet conditions won’t aid his cause.)  In previous French Opens, serving records generally have not produced positive outcomes; Venus broke the WTA Slam speed record in a 2007 loss to Jankovic, while Karlovic broke the single-match Slam ace record in a defeat to Hewitt last year.  Finally, Ivanovic delivered a characteristically candid post-match interview that was much more intriguing than her opening victory.  Documenting the Serb’s mental oscillations between confidence and uncertainty, it’s worth a read for Ana fans (go to the Roland Garros site, click on News and Photos, then Interviews).  As she tries to “move on and get better” from match to match, we move on to Day 3.

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Pironkova vs. Henin (22) (Chatrier, 1st match):  Perhaps a shade more familiar than the typical 22nd seed, Henin will be sure to reawaken blissful memories in the multitudes of quasi-compatriots eager to celebrate her return to Roland Garros.  The four-time defending champion ignites what will be an extremely demanding fortnight (judging from her draw) against a player whom she once considered a future contender.  Her tennis tomorrow will need to be more impressive than her prognosticating skills then, for Pironkova hasn’t accomplished anything remarkable at significant events; nevertheless, she did defeat a sub-par Dementieva in Warsaw last week.  A quintessential pusher, the Bulgarian projects almost no power at all behind her serves and groundstrokes, relying on movement and consistency to prolong points until her opponent commits errors.  Although Henin’s heightened aggression has produced recurrent flurries of miscues, she should find her range sooner or later.  Pironkova’s pacelessness should allow the Belgian to measure her groundstrokes on the clay, providing her with a useful reference point for tenser encounters in the imminent future.

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Hewitt (28) vs. Chardy (Chatrier, 4th match):  While neither player especially enjoys this surface, the match offers an intriguing contrast between a wily, tenacious veteran and a flamboyant, temperamental star of the future.  Or at least the French hope that Chardy delivers upon his promise, since recent evidence has not been impressive.  Can Hewitt’s grittier mentality enable him to outlast the younger player just as another Anglophone competitor survived a Frenchman on Day 2?  Or will Chardy’s more forceful serve-forehand combinations penetrate the court too effectively, miring the Australian deep behind the baseline?  Note the duration of the rallies, which will favor Chardy if relatively short and Hewitt if they extend longer.  Also observe the impact of the Paris crowd on yet another of les bleues, some of whom (Gasquet, Mauresmo) have appeared burdened by expectations and others of whom (Tsonga, Monfils) have relished the adulation.  On the other hand, something more than fanatical Frenchies is required to rattle Hewitt.

Safina (9) vs. Date Krumm (Lenglen, 2nd match):  The Russian seeks her third consecutive finals appearance at Roland Garros after finishing runner-up to Ivanovic and Safina, but it’s unrealistic to expect the realization of that goal in the aftermath of her back surgery.  Winning just one total match at Stuttgart, Rome, and Madrid, Safina could fall well outside the top 10 and possibly outside the top 20 if she falters here.  Opposite her stands the artful, seemingly ageless Date, whose enduring affection for the game inspired her improbable return.  Unsurprisingly, she hasn’t toppled many high-profile foes in the comeback, yet she did win the Seoul title and has taken sets from elite players such as Wozniacki.  The match rests in Safina’s control, which is not necessarily good news for her; in a similar situation against the pedestrian Zakopalova in Madrid, she coughed up leads in both sets before crumbling under pressure in two tiebreaks.  Should she establish an early lead, she might cruise.  If she doesn’t, we could witness a lively rollercoaster that would compensate for mediocre tennis with high-quality drama.

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Cornet vs. Pavlyuchenkova (29) (Court 1, 1st match):  Long considered future superstars by their respective nations, these expectation-laden phenoms have not quite delivered on their promise—the French much more notably than the Russian.  One can trace Cornet’s implosion to the two match points that she squandered against Safina in the fourth round of last year’s Australian Open.  Had she converted one of those opportunities, she would have reached a first Slam quarterfinal and possibly sparked a breakthrough season; instead, her understandable deflation combined with a  shoulder injury to completely reverse her momentum.  Although Pavlyuchenkova hasn’t endured a similarly spectacular collapse, the Russian has wavered after what seemed a career-changing surge into last year’s Indian Wells semifinals.  She has struggled notably on the largest stages over the past year and has been hobbled by a foot injury in recent weeks.  It’ll be intriguing to observe whether Pavlyuchenkova can recapture the form that brought her to the second week here in 2009, or whether Cornet can muster momentum from encouraging performances in Fez and Estoril.  The French crowd will be firmly on her side, but she might be better off if they weren’t.

Ferrero (16) vs. Cuevas (Court 1, 3rd match):  Our last sight of the polished, gracefully aging Ferrero was his ignominious opening defeat in Rome at the unexpected hands of Santiago Giraldo.  (The Colombian displayed a crisp game that day, but a former French Open champion needs to win more than three games from an unseeded challenger.)  Shortly afterwards, a knee injury compelled Juan Carlos to withdraw from his home even in Madrid, a pity considering his near-total dominance of the South American clay courts in February.  It’ll be intriguing to observe what attitude the former French Open champion brings to his clash with the Uruguayan clay-court doubles specialist Pablo Cuevas.  Gifted with an elegant backhand, Cuevas has overcome adversaries as accomplished as Almagro on this surface, so he could penalize an unconvincing Ferrero.  Above all, though, this duo should deliver a classic exhibit of clay-court tennis rather than awkwardly adapting hard-court styles to the dirt as is so often the case in the contemporary game.  Watching players like these, one learns to relish the variety among tennis surfaces and regret the current trend towards uniform surface speed.

Ginepri vs. Querrey (18) (Court 2, 2nd match):  We’ll admit immediately that these two Americans are no clay experts and in fact are occasionally embarrassed by the vagaries of the surface.  This clash caught our attention not from the brilliant technique that they’ll display but from its psychological component.  Losing their previous meeting in the Indianapolis final despite a far more imposing serve, Querrey brings that mental baggage to the court as well as the baggage of never having won a match at Roland Garros.  It’s not surprising that his strategically limited game hasn’t succeeded here in the past, yet the sometimes complacent American has typically underwhelmed at Slams in general, not a positive sign for his future.  He can’t keep writing off early, disappointing losses as learning experiences forever, nor can he continue losing lackadaisically on important occasions to respectable but unintimidating players like Ginepri.  There’s a fine line between relaxed and lackadaisical that the loose-limbed Californian needs to find soon.

Peer (18) vs. Llagostera Vives (Q) (Court 6, 1st match):  Generally not renowned for her clay-court skills, the Israeli smoothly navigated a pair of formidable draws to reach the semifinals in Stuttgart and Madrid.  In that infamous top quarter of the WTA draw, Peer’s days are certainly numbered, for she could face Serena in the round of 16.  Nevertheless, this tournament represents an opportunity to extend the momentum from the Premier events into Wimbledon and the summer hard courts, where she has prospered more often.  Toting a name as long as she is short, Llagostera Vives has achieved resounding success in doubles with Martinez Sanchez but can be crafty in singles as well.  Peer will be cast in the role of the aggressor, an unaccustomed and perhaps uncomfortable position for her.  We should see a match defined by intelligent point construction and mental tenacity much more than baseline bullets.  Neither of these players can survive with the top-tier sluggers, but they’re an engaging diversion from the power-soaked games of the WTA elite.

Briefly notedAfter Ginepri vs. Querrey on Court 2, Serena and Venus continue their pursuit of a doubles calendar Slam.  Absent for most of the clay season in which she thrives, Marbella finalist Suarez Navarro targets Ponte Vedra Beach finalist Govortsova, a Belarussian who has enjoyed surprising success on this surface over the past several weeks.  One match to not watch is the clash between Gabashvili and Daniel Koellerer.  The senselessly pugnacious Austrian has earned the contempt of fellow players, commentators, and spectators alike for his repulsive, relentless displays of gamesmanship inappropriate to this dignified sport.  Far more elegant is the meeting between Hantuchova and Tamarine Tanasugarn, both of whom must be looking forward to the grass season; nevertheless, we’re curious to see who more successfully adapts their fast-court style to the clay.  While the willowy Slovak attempts to solve that riddle, Russian qualifier Ksenia Pervak ventures into the den of a familiar lioness:

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How do you solve a problem like Maria?  We hope that Pervak has no answer. 😉