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Svetlana Kuznetsova Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia holds alloft the Fed Cup trophy on day two of the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group Final between Spain and Russia at the Club de Campo on September 14, 2008 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Svetlana Kuznetsova

Dominant in the team competition of women’s tennis over the past several years, Russia hosts a challenger worthy of its steel in a Czech battalion spearheaded by the world #2.  If Kvitova aims to crack the Russian stranglehold, she may need to overcome Fed Cup stalwart Kuznetsova in the first meeting between these similarly named shot-makers.  We offer five keys to the Fed Cup final.

1)     Will Kvitova have a hangover?

After she catapulted into fame with the Wimbledon title, the leading Czech woman wandered through a fruitless summer of seemingly disinterred performances.  In the aftermath of her triumph at the year-end championships, anyone not from her nation could forgive Kvitova for suffering from a sense of anticlimax.  More marginalized in the women’s game than Davis Cup in the men’s game, a Fed Cup title would not rank among the most memorable accomplishments of a year during which she raced to the #2 ranking.  The single most valuable player on either squad cannot afford to slip into this mentality against a Russian team that already has ambushed one opponent this year (see below).  For inspiration, perhaps Kvitova could note the steady semifinal march of Djokovic in Basel, a tournament no more than a tiny footnote in the Serb’s season.

2)     Can Kuznetsova continue her Fed Cup heroics?

The flagship of the Russian squad following Zvonareva’s injury, Sveta spent most of the season mired in a malaise of brittle focus and uncertain motivation.  But she did rise to the occasion on two notable stages, reaching the Roland Garros quarterfinal and nearly upsetting Wozniacki in the fourth round of the US Open.  Fiercely proud of her national heritage, she also has distinguished herself in fiercely contested Fed Cup rubbers, such as a three-set tilt with Schiavone during the 2007 final.  Kuznetsova sparked Russia’s unprecedented rally from a 0-2 deficit against France earlier this season and has won two of three meetings from Safaraova, which bodes well for a Saturday rubber that her team must claim.  Moreover, she never has faced Kvitova, so canny captain Shamil Tarpischev may expect the element of surprise to rattle the Czech star when combined with the hostile, unfamiliar setting.

3)     Does Tarpischev have something up his sleeve?

Rarely does the grandmaster of Davis and Fed Cup approach an evenly matched tie without a specific plan, and virtually never does he approach an uphill battle without some stratagem calculated to level the odds.  Despite home-court advantage, Russia appears the underdog when comparing the two teams but only because of Kvitova.  While the Czechs will lean upon her brilliance, Tarpischev may rely upon the superior depth available to him, including Roland Garros and US Open quarterfinalist Pavlyuchenkova.  Relatively untested in Fed Cup, she has won her previous meetings against both Kvitova and Safarova.  If one of her countrywomen stumbles, Tarpischev may seriously consider a substitution.  On the other hand, Kirilenko has enjoyed notable success against Safarova, and the Russian captain typically places great confidence in head-to-head records.  No matter whether he embraces or eschews risk, Tarpischev will consider his options carefully at every stage of the weekend.   And, no matter the outcome, he will shoulder a larger share of the responsibility than do most captains.

4)     Who does the surface actually favor?

At first glance, Russia’s choice of a relatively fast indoor hard court strikes one as odd (the fast part, not the indoor part).  While mightiest first-strike weapons on either team belong to Kvitova, the sturdiest consistency on either team belongs to Kirilenko.  The choice of surface thus would seem more favorable to the visitors than to the home squad, which includes the 2009 Roland Garros champion and might have exploited the erratic stretches of both Kvitova and Safarova more effectively on indoor clay.  But the world #2 has won titles on every surface this year, including the Premier Mandatory tournament in Madrid.  Meanwhile, Russia’s #1 has proved much less than a model of consistency herself this season, so she might not relish the thought of hitting several extra shots to win points.  As Radwanska has demonstrated on grass and fast hard courts, counterpunchers like Kirilenko sometimes benefit from the extra jolt of pace added by the surface to their strokes.  The surface probably will prove a neutral factor, refreshing in a sense when one thinks of the numerous Davis and Fed Cup ties decided not by players but by the ground beneath their feet.

5)     What happens if it comes down to doubles?

Outside Peschke on the Czech side, neither team owns a double specialist if the tie reaches that decisive phase.  Both captains would need to decide between a singles player with greater talent and a singles player with more rest.  While the length of the singles rubbers might play a role in that evaluation, Tarpischev has favored momentum more often than not and trusted the top performer of the weekend to deliver one more time.  Considering that many players compete in singles and doubles on the same day in a best-of-three format, this philosophy seems sensible in most cases but probably will not apply to the opposition.  Since Kvitova and Safarova lack extensive doubles experience, captain Petr Pala should turn as advertised to Lucie Hradecka to partner Pesche, who just appeared with regular partner Srebotnik in the Istanbul final.  In that case, the visitors would prepare to rely upon superior doubles expertise against the superior overall talent of the Russian duo.

But the tie probably won’t reach the fifth rubber with the outcome uncertain.  In a surprising end to an often surprising season, the Czechs should topple the last decade’s Fed Cup leviathan 3-1.

 

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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.