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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.

***

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

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Team of Italy (left Corrado Barazzutti, Francesca Schiavone, Roberta Vinci, Sara Errani,Flavia Pennetta) lift the trophy after the final match of the Fed Cup World Group between Italy and the USA at Circolo Tennis Rocco Polimeni on November 8, 2009 in Reggio Calabria, Italy.

Embedded in an intensely individual sport, Fed Cup and Davis Caup continue to reward competitors who can maintain unity and cohesion under pressure.  Neither team in San Diego this weekend contains a marquee superstar familiar to casual fans, with the arguable exception of Schiavone.  Instead, both Italy and the United States have built their recent success upon a core of loyal players dedicated to Fed Cup, most of whom value this team competition more than many of the tournaments that they enter.  While the Italians arrive as considerable favorites, Team USA ambushed a Russian squad spearheaded by Dementieva earlier and will hope to exploit their home-court advantage to reverse the outcome of the 2009 final, held on hostile clay.  Yet Schiavone and her supporting cast enjoy greater experience and possess a deeper reservoir of talent.  We break down each member of the teams and analyze her individual impact upon the weekend.  Which squad will prove greater than the sum of its parts?

USA:

Mattek-Sands:  A stronger server than the Italians, Mattek-Sands won the key rubber in the USA’s semifinal victory, a three-set rollercoaster over Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova.  The fast indoor court will shield her from the inconsistency that has hampered her in longer points, and she will find opportunities to showcase her forecourt talents.  When she faces Schiavone in Sunday’s singles, an engaging all-court contest could ensue.  Idle since reaching the final in Quebec City, Mattek-Sands responded to enthusiastic fan support at the US Open by reaching match point against the much more formidable Petkovic.  Likely to partner Huber in the doubles rubber, the quirky American probably holds the key to victory—or defeat—for the home team.

Vandeweghe:  Choosing Coco over the more seasoned Oudin, captain Mary Joe Fernandez has assumed a calculated risk that seems likely to reward her.  Appearing in her Fed Cup debut, the volatile teenager from Southern California hopes to build upon her local success in the San Diego event this August.  There, Vandeweghe stunned Wimbledon finalist Zvonareva and severely tested Kuznetsova before succumbing to that tournament’s eventual champion.   With her massive serve-forehand combinations, she should secure numerous free points on the fast court and won’t find her questionable movement exposed by the shorter rallies there.  After an encouraging fall campaign, Coco should enter the weekend brimming with confidence, while the crowd support should inoculate her against the tension typically experienced by Fed Cup novices.

Oudin:  The toast of New York a year ago, the pugnacious Georgian staggered through most of 2010 with one notable exception:  Fed Cup.  Effective against a dysfunctional French team in the quarterfinals, the former US Open quarterfinalist scored a key victory for the US in their opening rubber against Russia.  She then extended Dementieva to three sets a day later, reminding audiences that she thrives upon the home crowd’s support.  But the fast indoor court should prove a little too fast for the diminutive American, who relies on counterpunching rather than first-strike shotmaking.  Barring a Coco catastrophe on Saturday, she probably won’t see any action in a meaningful match over the weekend.

Huber:  Despite playing only one rubber for the USA, the former doubles #1 brings valuable experience and leadership qualities to the team.  After separating from longtime partner Cara Black, Huber has continued to score victories at WTA events with various partners; moreover, she has won all of the deciding doubles rubbers in which she has participated for the Americans.  Accustomed to receiving little attention in doubles, she has embraced the heightened intensity of Fed Cup and regularly exhorts her teammates from the bench.

Italy v USA - Fed Cup World Group Final Day Two

Italy:

Schiavone:   Seeking to conclude the strongest season of her career with a third Fed Cup title, the crafty veteran may arrive in San Diego fatigued from her exertions in Doha.  During that week, Schiavone often looked weary at key moments against Stosur and Wozniacki, but perhaps she merely conserved her energy for an event with greater personal significance for her.  A proud Italian who has personified the spirit of Fed Cup, the Roland Garros champion demonstrated her hard-court prowess throughout the second half of 2010, even on the fast surface at the US Open.  Relishing the atmosphere of battle, Schiavone will not crumble in the hostile surroundings of San Diego.  On the other hand, she has compiled just a 4-9 Fed Cup singles record on hard courts and a 7-8 Fed Cup singles record indoors.

Pennetta:  Overshadowed this season by her flamboyant compatriot, Flavia has delivered much more impressive Fed Cup performances on hard courts (6-2) and indoors (8-3).  Somewhat more powerful than Schiavone, Pennetta possesses a more reliable serve that led her to a semifinal in San Diego and a quarterfinal in Cincinnati this summer.  The second-ranked doubles player in the world, the Italian collected momentum from Doha by winning the doubles title there with Dulko.  Pennetta sagged perceptibly over the last few months, however, and brings a three-match losing streak to the weekend in San Diego.  Notorious for an explosive temper, the Calabrian will need to restrain her emotions under the pressure of the American crowd.  If she stays positive with the assistance of captain Corrado Barazzuti, however, Pennetta likely will play the heroine for Italy by winning both of her singles matches.

Errani/Vinci:  On most occasions, Team USA would fancy its chances in a doubles rubber involving Huber.  But Luxembourg champion Vinci remains a perfect 15-0 in Fed Cup doubles competition, with seven indoor victories.  Her partner Errani has lost just once in seven Fed Cup doubles rubbers and never on a hard court, so the Americans should not rely upon simply splitting the four singles matches to preserve their hopes for the doubles.  If this weekend does reach the final rubber, it could produce a thrilling climax that would showcase the highest quality of this overlooked division of the sport.

***

We return over the weekend to preview the Rafa-less Masters 1000 tournament in Paris, but first we extend our birthday wishes to the smiling Serb in Bali!

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Bright lights, big city, baseline bombs:  the US Open has arrived again.  We break down both the men’s and the women’s draws quarter by quarter, this time starting with the ladies…

First quarter: Having captured consecutive titles in Montreal and New Haven, top seed Wozniacki looms over the draw a bit more authoritatively than one might have expected.  The world #2 should cruise through her first two rounds into a potentially intriguing clash with lefty shotmaker Safarova, who often has ambushed marquee players and may profit from her opponent’s fatigue.  If healthy, though, the top seed likely will advance to a final-16 clash with Sharapova, who must overcome surging Australian Jarmila Groth in the first round and French firecracker Rezai in the third round.  On the other side lurks Li Na, unimpressive since Wimbledon but always a formidable competitor in majors with her focus and mental resilience.  Not known for either of those qualities, 2004 champion and 2007 finalist Kuznetsova might encounter the Chinese star in the fourth round if she escapes Roland Garros (and Rome) nemesis Kirilenko in the third round.  The most fearsome offense in this fearsome section, however, belongs to the 14th-seeded Sharapova, who also may benefit from Wozniacki’s weariness and Kuznetsova’s continued fragility.  Despite her premature exits at her last two US Opens, Maria has rediscovered her confidence as well as her serve in recent months, and her savage strokes should sizzle through the fast courts just as they did in Stanford and Cincinnati.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Second quarter: Probably the softest quarter in the draw, this section might open a door for a dark horse like Petrova, who has reached two Slam quarterfinals this year by knocking off Clijsters and Venus.  The enigmatic Russian opens her campaign against rising German Andrea Petkovic before colliding with the crafty Radwanska in the third round; although she sparkled for much of the US Open Series, the Pole lacks the first-strike weaponry required to progress deep into the New York draw.  Eyeing a potential rematch with San Diego nemesis Coco Vandeweghe is Wimbledon finalist Zvonareva, who rebounded from a predictable post-breakthrough lull to reach the Montreal final with a second victory over Clijsters.  Almost vanishing after Roland Garros, Jankovic played only four matches on American hard courts this summer (winning just one) and faces a thorny third-round clash with Kaia Kanepi.  Before charging within a point of the Wimbledon semifinals, the burly Estonian threatened the lithe Serb on the Paris clay.  Suffering an arid summer so far, lower seeds Martinez Sanchez and Wickmayer might struggle to reach the second week.  Whoever emerges from this section, however, likely will be cannon fodder for the semifinalist from the first quarter, whether it is Sharapova, Wozniacki, Kuznetsova, or Li.

Semifinalist:  Zvonareva

Third quarter: Above the top two seeds in this region, Venus and Schiavone, hover substantial uncertainties concerning the motivation level of the former and the fitness level of the latter.  In the third round, the willowy Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova aims to complete three-quarters of a Venus Slam, having vanquished the elder Williams at the Australian Open and this year’s Wimbledon.  Yet the more intriguing third-round encounter features Cincinnati semifinalist and former junior #1 Pavlyuchenkova against Stanford champion Azarenka, once again on the threshold of evolving into an elite contender.  Don’t forget last year’s quarterfinalist Flavia Pennetta, a steady all-court veteran who might well oust Venus in the fourth round, but we’ll back the winner of Pavlyuchenkova-Azarenka to reach the final four of a major for the first time in their careers.  (Situated in a relatively benign corner, meanwhile, Melanie Oudin might not fall on her face as disastrously as some Americans have feared.)

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Fourth quarter: Rivaling the first quarter for potential intrigue, this section features the defending champion, two former #1s, an Olympic gold medalist, and arguably the best server in the tournament.  Like Wozniacki, Clijsters enjoys a pair of comfortable rounds before confronting a quirky Czech lefty with an arhythmic style centered around high risk and high reward.  Since reaching the Wimbledon semifinals, however, Kvitova has struggled to cope with her elevated status and (not unlike Rezai) has returned to her feckless former self.  If Ivanovic can defuse Eastbourne champion Makarova in her opener, she will face the imposing task of overcoming Zheng and then Bartoli in order to arrive at a fourth-round meeting with the defending champion.  The other side of this quarter features several players armed with excellent pedigrees but plagued by recurrent inconsistency, ranging from Stosur and Kleybanova to Safina and Dementieva.  In her New Haven semifinal with Wozniacki, Elena outplayed the eventual champion for much of the match but characteristically squandered a late lead, while the ailing Stosur pried just three games from Petrova last week.  Therefore, opportunity knocks for 2008 semifinalist Safina to extend her encouraging summer with a second-week appearance.  But her run will end by the quarters unless the Belgian’s hip injury resurfaces.

Semifinalist:  Clijsters

Final:  Sharapova vs. Azarenka

Champion:  Sharapova

Turning to the gentlemen and not-so-gentle men…

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First quarter: Uninspired during the summer Masters 1000 tournaments, Nadal should feast upon a section filled with erratic shotmakers and dubious competitors, although projected third-round foe Kohlschreiber did challenge him in Toronto.  The only player to defeat Rafa between Miami and the Rogers Cup, Lopez could intersect with his compatriot in the round of 16 after a third-round meeting with Ljubicic; the Croat has faded swiftly (and unsurprisingly) since winning Indian Wells.  On the other side proliferate some of the ATP’s most distinctive personalities, spearheaded by Verdasco, Gulbis, and Nalbandian.  Sagging after a dazzling clay season, Verdasco likely will fall to the resurgent Argentine in the third round, while Gulbis will be favored to bludgeon slow-surface specialist Ferrer into submission.  Nadal could struggle against the winner of a Gulbis-Nalbandian confrontation, for both of them possess the ability to overpower the Spaniard from the baseline.  Nevertheless, the top seed should rely on his consistency and concentration against the Latvian or his fitness against the Argentine in order to reach a third consecutive semifinal at the only Slam that still eludes him.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter: A finalist at two of his last four hard-court majors, Murray once again lies on the threshold of a substantial breakthrough after defeating Federer and Nadal consecutively in Canada.  Occasional hitting partner Wawrinka should test but not thwart the Scot in the third round, and possible fourth-round foe Querrey still must learn how to translate his small-scale success into the majors and Masters 1000 tournaments.  At the base of the quarter rests the revelation of the year, Berdych, although a leg injury in Cincinnati may undercut his efforts to reprise a Roland Garros demolition of Murray and reach a third consecutive Slam semifinal.  Moreover, the Czech appears a bit mentally jaded after his unexpected successes in 2010 have elevated his match total relatively early in the season.  Mentally suspect or physically dubious names populate much of this section, Isner among them; hindered by strained ankle ligaments, the American is still regrouping after his surreal Wimbledon epic.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Third quarter: Although tennis doesn’t incorporate the concept of home-court advantage, both Roddick and Fish will feel relatively satisfied with their section.  Briefly outstanding during his Toronto semifinal, Djokovic lapsed into lethargy and indifference again during his week in Cincinnati, where Andy extended his dominance over the Serb.  They could collide in the quarterfinals for the second straight tournament, but it’s equally likely that Roddick will meet the winner of a third-round duel between Baghdatis and Fish.  Long known for squandering their talents, both the Cypriot and the American reaped the rewards of renewed dedication during the US Open Series.  Despite recuperating from mono, Roddick has enjoyed greater success in the best-of-five format than most of this quarter’s other inhabitants, including potential fourth-round opponents Davydenko and Bellucci.  If he hopes to progress deep into the tournament, however, Andy must win his matches more efficiently than he did in Cincinnati.

Semifinalist:  Roddick

Fourth quarter: Whether seeded at the top or the bottom of the draw, Federer generally finds himself nestled in a cozy corner.  Such is the case again here, as the Swiss legend will not have to overcome anyone more demanding than veterans Hewitt, Ferrero, and Melzer in order to reach the quarterfinals—where he faces the same player whom he defeated here in that round a year ago.  In addition to Soderling’s dismal head-to-head record against Federer, however, one should remember that he dragged the five-time US Open champion within a point of a fifth set last year before dispatching him from Roland Garros (in yet another quarterfinal) this year.  With the massive bookends of the Swede and the Swiss, one might nearly forget about the balanced groundstroke game of Marin Cilic, whose recent swoon is threatening to shift him from the “promising” to the “once-promising” category.  Surrounded by a host of qualifiers, the Croat should reach the second week and a fourth-round encounter with Soderling, but neither he nor the injury-addled Gonzalez currently possesses both the confidence and the weapons to win a best-of-five encounter with the fifth seed.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Final:  Murray vs. Federer

Champion:  Federer

***

Balanced better than the draws of several recent Slams, these quadrants should provide a steady acceleration of action from the first week through the middle weekend towards the championship matches.  We return tomorrow to preview the most scintillating opening salvos of the season’s final major!