US, Russia on Fed Cup Collision Course
Posted on April 19, 2007
The opening round of the 2007 Fed Cup by BNP Paribas kicks off this weekend with eight nations competing for the biggest international team title in women's tennis. The winners of these four ties will advance to the Fed Cup semifinals, to be held on the weekend of July 14 and 15.
Italy will be looking to successfully defend the title it won in Belgium last September and is joined in the World Group I by its victims in last year's final Belgium, as well as France, Japan, Russia, Spain, USA and World Group I debutants China.
USA vs. Belgium
Without their Top 10 stars Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, the Belgians are fielding their least experienced Fed Cup team in recent years. The Americans will also know they are entering the tie with history on their side, holding a 4-1 head to head lead in the competition. However, this fact may be offset by the defeat they suffered at the hands of Belgium in last year's semifinals.
Nevertheless, the absence of their visitor's main two sources of firepower make the United States clear favourites to progress to the semifinals in July. Both Henin and Clijsters have cited their busy schedule as the reason behind their decision and team captain Sabine Appelmans will hope Kirsten Flipkens and Caroline Maes can deputise ably.
The tie will also see Venus and Serena Williams make their first Fed Cup appearance together since a 5-0 first round victory over the Czech Republic in 2003. However, Serena was a nonplaying member of the American team that coincidently defeated an understrength Belgian lineup two years ago at the very same venue. Serena, the reigning Australian Open champion, will be eager to extend her unbeaten 6-0 record in Fed Cup rubbers and in the process help the Americans recapture the trophy they last won in 2000.
Russia vs. Spain
The Spaniards have a proud Fed Cup tradition with five titles and five runner-up finishes but have not reached a final since 2002. Contrastingly, Russia has been the form team in recent years, capturing the trophy in 2004 and 2005, although it will be keen to erase the memory of its first round defeat at the hands of Belgium last year.
The Russians can boast unrivaled strength and depth in the modern women's game, and their challenge this weekend will be spearheaded by world No.5 Svetlana Kuznetsova and No.9 Nadia Petrova. Both women have had impressive seasons to date, Petrova winning in Paris and Kuznetsova reaching finals at both Doha and Indian Wells.
Standing in their way will be a Spanish team that will believe experience can make up for its lack of stellar names. Their challenge will be led by world No.29 Anabel Media Garrigues, who will need strong input from No.66 Lourdes Domínguez Lino and No.119 Laura Pous Tio to take down the talented Russians.
Japan is returning to the elite World Group I for the first time since 2004 and will be hopefulit can capitalise on the absence of Fed Cup stalwart Amélie Mauresmo and overcome the French team and its partisan crowd. However, if they are to progress to the semifinals for the first time since 1996, they will have to defeat a French team with an impressive Fed Cup record. Champions in 1997 and 2003, France is also the only nation never to have been relegated from the top tier of the World Group.
France will be buoyed by the form of Tatiana Golovin who won the Bausch & Lomb Championships in Amelia Island two weeks ago and her Captain Georges Goven will be keen for her to transfer this form to the Fed Cup arena. The Japanese will be reliant on a strong performance from experienced campaigner Ai Sugiyama, but she is likely to be well supported by Akiko Morigami who boasts and impressive 16-2 Fed Cup record.
Italy vs. China
Defending champions Italy face a stern challenge in the first tie of the 2007 competition as they take on the emerging power in the women’s game, China. However, after dispatching Germany 4-1 in the play-off to reach the World Group I for the first time, China will have to compete without its No.1 and most experienced Fed Cup player Li Na. Li, along with Chinese No.2 Zheng Jie, are being rested so other players can gain eligibility for the 2008 Beijing Olympics (with Fed Cup participation being one of the main criteria).
The Chinese team will still be able to call on world No.32 Peng Shuai and Olympic doubles gold medallist Sun Tiantian, as they bid to advance beyond the first round in their first appearance at this stage of the competition.
Li's absence, in alliance with home advantage makes Italy favourites to advance to the semifinals, but Top 50 players Tathiana Garbin, Mara Santangelo and Flavia Pennetta will all have to be at their best if they are to ensure there is no upset this weekend.
In World Group II, Slovakia hosts the Czech Republic; Germany takes on Croatia; Canada plays host to the Israel; and Austria will play Austrlia. All of these nations are playing for promotion into the 2007 World Group I.