How can we tell? Why, because USTA head Katrina Adams if finding her way into the frame of as many photos as humanly possible, that's how. It's like spotting the first robin bounding across the lawn in the spring.
While the heart of the 2037 U.S. Fed Cup (or Davis Cup?) team gets in a little practice time inside the tummy of the soon-to-be-#1 (again, on Monday) player in the world...
Serena Williams' baby in the womb: pic.twitter.com/n7gjvTxSIC— TrivWorks (@TrivWorks) April 19, 2017
The rest of us prepare for another big weekend.
CZE: Siniakova,Allertova,Kr.Pliskova,Vondrousova (Capt: Pala)
USA: Vandeweghe,Rogers,Davis,Mattek-Sands (Capt: Rinaldi)
This was already an interesting match-up after February's result set up the first CZE/USA clash since 2009, then it became all the more conversational when the Saddlebrook site (on a green clay court) was chosen for this weekend, and still MORE intriguing when Czech Captain Petr Pala came out with a shockingly inexperienced roster for the long-time dominant Maidens that featured four players who have never played Fed Cup singles, and two who are making their FC debuts.
Hmmm, did the Tennis Gods abhore Mary Joe Fernandez's roster-deficient, tactically-challenged run as U.S. Captain as much as I did, and thus have potentially set up an appearance in the final on a tee for the Bannerettes in Kathy Rinaldi's rookie season leading the nation's Fed Cup efforts?
The Czechs arrive in Florida for their ninth straight FC semifinal having won ten straight ties and suffered just one loss since 2011 (2013 SF vs. ITA), going a (shocking) combined 17-1 during the stretch, winning five titles in six years and now looking to become the first team to four-peat in over three decades (the U.S. seven-year run from 1976-82). But none of the players that did all that will be in Tampa, as Pala will swallow hard and hope the fates are with him once more. While talented, the four-Maiden squad is, depending on which player you're talking about, either inexperienced on the international stage (and playing on the road) or not particularly adept on clay. 17-year old Marketa Vondrosova's title run in Biel made this gambit seem less odd, but that tournament was played on indoor hard court, and the teenager might not even see the court in her first career FC tie. Same for Kristyna Pliskova, whose comments this week don't sound like she's really expecting to play much, if at all, and isn't all that confident about how much she can contribute on clay, anyway (though she did point out that CoCo Vandeweghe is in the same boat, which would make a match-up between the two this weekend all the more anticipated, considering CoCo's tendency to, how would you say, lead with her chin when challenged?). Denisa Allertova lists clay as her favorite surface, so she'll need to contribute a win if given a slot on the schedule, but how she'd react in her FC singles debut at age 24 with such pressure on her shoulders is anyone's guess. It's Katerina Siniakova, though, who's the wild card. And a dangerous one, too. She'll likely be Pala's #1 option, and the Week 1 title-winner and star-in-the-making will probably have to go 2-0 (and maybe play doubles, too) in order for the Czechs to advance. If she does it, Karolina Pliskova will have her dependable (and young) #2, while Vondrousova (she led the nation's Junior FC champs two years ago) and a few others are further seasoned. And the Czechs might soon be challenging that seven-in-a-row title run the U.S. completed in the early 1980's.
After her successful debut as Captain vs. Germany in February (on the court, not off it... where the USTA was, as usual, an embarrassment), Rinaldi finds herself in the position to roll the dice in the U.S.'s first semifinal since 2010. AO semifinalist Vandeweghe would be expected to be the #1 singles player here, but the clay surface (though since it's green, not slow red, it may better suit her game) makes her a question mark. She went 2-0 on hard court vs. Germany two months ago, but her career 3-3 FC mark includes just two matches on clay (1-1). But Shelby Rogers (1-0), hot off her Charleston QF run on green clay, and Lauren Davis, a competitive scrambler off to a great start in '17 (she, like Siniakova, won a title in Week 1), could prove to be Rinaldi's (semi-)secret weapons in this tie. If things get sticky, Bethanie Mattek-Sands (6-0 in FC WD) gives the roster versatility, veteran leadership, big match experience and doubles proficiency, things which MJF never seemed to care to factor in when it came to assembling rosters (until her final season at the helm in '16, ironically).
From the standpoint of the rosters, home court advantage, surface (just barely, maybe) and just about every intangible factor except for the lingering Czech aura of invincibility (even with, or maybe because of, all those 3-2 ties), the U.S. seems to have the advantage here. The Czechs have built their FC empire on great depth, but also a true sense of team. After years of strained team dynamics and the stench of desperation (at best) under MJF, the Bannerettes were a truly together bunch in the 1st Round in Hawaii, rallying around Rinaldi and each other. If that camaraderie can be maintained, the U.S. will be playing for its first FC title since winning in Las Vegas seventeen years ago. But if Siniakova comes out of the gate blasting, and essentially "punches" the U.S. in the face with an emotional Saturday win (especially if it's vs. Vandeweghe, the most accomplished singles player in action in Tampa and the emotional, if complicated, center of the team), Rinaldi's squad (and the Captain herself) will be thoroughly tested to find a way out of the weeds.
All right, let's do this.
SUI: Bacsinszky,Golubic,Bencic,Hingis (Capt: Gunthardt)
BLR: Sasnovich,Sabalenka,Govortsova,Lapko (Capt: Dubrou)
In February, Belarus' set-up moment came when the upstarts jumped on the favored Dutch with an Aliaksandra Sasnovich win in match #1, followed by Aryna Sabalenka knocking Kiki Bertens off balance in the second (though she lost after holding a MP vs. the Fed Cup stalwart, the Dutch were wobbled and never recovered from the drama). The two women then swept all four singles sets on Day 2 (in fact, NED never won another set all weekend after Bertens' escape) to complete the surprise attack on the Netherlands team that had been 2016's Cindrella squad, taking over the role themselves for 2017 to reach their first ever semifinal. If the Belarusians can get past Switzerland, they'd likely see the roster reinforced by a returning Vika Azarenka in the fall in the attempt to win the nation's first (and completely improbable just a few months ago) FC crown against what would be a favored Czech or Bannerette squad seeking to add another piece of hardware to either nation's already-crowded trophy case. Sasnovich (11-7) is back, and so is 19-year old breakout FC star Sabalenka. Vet Olga Govorsova (20-10 s/6-2 d), fresh off an $80K challenger win, provides depth, while junior Vera Lapko picks up experience for the future (and maybe gets on the court in a dead rubber situation, as she did in the 1st Round).
Switzerland has unfinished business. In the 2016 semis, the Swiss forced the dominant Czech team to the deciding doubles despite singles #1 Timea Bacsinszky going 0-2 on the weekend. Bolstered by Viktorija Golubic's stunning 2-0 weekend, they were one win away from the nation's first FC final since 1998. Golubic (in for Bacsinszky) & Martina Hingis lost that match. In February, Bacsinszky (19-15) reclaimed her FC mojo by gutting out a 2-0 weekend vs. France despite an injury scare, then Belinda Bencic clinched the tie with a singles win in her only bright spot in the '17 season (and, really, last nine months). Hingis (18-4/10-3, 0-2/2-1 in her most recent FC incarnation) is here again, just as she was in the '98 final, with a rare shot to add yet another unique line to chew on this tennis season -- a "first FC final appearance in nineteen years" -- in a rare occurrence that incidentally included a Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony in between those weekends nearly two decades apart. Hingis first played Fed Cup for SUI in 1995. Of the other seven roster players in Minsk, three weren't yet born at the time, while two others were still in diapers. "Veterans" Bacsinszky and Govortsova were, respectively, 9 and 10.
Bacsinszky will be expected to go 2-0 again, even if it's not a sure thing. Still, at least one win by either Bencic (7-2 FC) or Golubic (who didn't get on the court in February) "should" secure this tie for the Swiss, as they'd have the advantage in a deciding doubles scenario with Bacsinszky/Hingis (who've won Olympic Silver and reached the Charleston final since last year's semis) around to possibly carry home the win.
ESP: Sorribes-Tormo,Soler-Espinosa,Saez-Larra,Martinez-Sanchez (Capt: C.Martinez)
FRA: Mladenovic,Cornet,Parmentier,Hesse (Capt: Noah)
For the Pastries, getting here has been dramatic and controversial in utterly unnecessary ways that only the French could pull off. Or not pull off, as the case may be. After seeing Amelie Mauresmo right the French FC ship during her tenor as Captain before her exit after last season due to pregnancy, things appeared to be on course for continued success after the nation's first appearance in the final since 2005 (when Mauresmo was still a player). But then a new president, Bernard Giudicelli, was installed by the French federation (FFT), Caroline Garcia announced she wouldn't play FC in '17 and would instead focus on her singles career, the team didn't name a fourth member (Amandine Hesse) until rather late in the process after Oceane Dodin showed reluctance to join the effort for the 1st Round tie vs. Switzerland, which was lost because Kristina Mladenovic (4-6 in her FC singles career) wasn't able to put the entire singles load on her shoulders as Garcia (with Mauresmo inspiring her) proved adept at during the 2015-16 run. Then things got really interesting. Garcia announced in March that she was ending her doubles partnership with Mladenovic, a pairing which had started as a FC entity and morphed into an Olympic year pair that won a Roland Garros crown. Soon after, Mladenovic won her first tour title and passed Garcia in the rankings. Last week, Garcia announced that she had a back injury that would keep her off tour for a month, and because of that couldn't play in this tie vs. Spain. Although, she'd already announced her '17 FC intentions, the FFT's new rules regarding players not playing Fed or Davis Cup likely led to Garcia's further clarification, as fines, assigned "blame," orders to "prove" injuries to official doctors, and a threat of a five-year ban by the FFT are now part of the French Fed Cup experience. Garcia's injury announcement was greeted by simultaneous (and surely coordinated) "LOL" Tweets from Mladenovic, Alize Cornet and Pauline Parmentier... and then Captain Yannick Noah named Garcia to this weekend's roster anyway. Finally, after a lot of huffing and puffing, Garcia was able to prove her injury to the satisfaction of the FFT. Noah then named Dodin to the FC roster. Extending this messy story still longer, Dodin refused the nomination, essentially calling the bluff of the federation's threats by giving no reason other than stating that she didn't believe that tennis was anything but an individual sport. Finally, Hesse, who must feel rather like a fifth wheel on a four-member team at this point, was again named for the fourth roster spot. Whew!
And, oh yeah, there's also tennis to be played in Roanne. Go figure.
On that front, the Pastries might be getting a big break. The Spanish roster doesn't include a Muguruza, a Suarez-Navarro or even an Arruabarrena. Sara Sorribes-Tormo has been playing well of late, but is just 1-0 in her FC career. Silvia Soler-Espinosa is 4-7, while Olga Saez Larra is making her debut (MJMS is likely only a WD option, though she's only played one dead rubber WD match in Fed Cup -- in February -- since 2011). Once again, though, Mladenovic likely has to put up an unblemished singles mark. So-called #2 Cornet is 3-14 in her FC singles career and has now been passed over and bailed on on gameday by TWO different FC Captains. Parmentier (4-8) may be called upon to provide a tie-saving singles win if Kiki can't go 2-0. If things get to the doubles, the French would have the advantage with Mladenovic teaming with whichever teammate is fresh enough to join her (probably Cornet, who HAS had some success in Fed Cup doubles).
BEL: Mertens,Zanevska,Van Uytvanck,Mestach (Capt: Monami)
RUS: Vesnina,Pavlyuchenkova,Kasatkina,Blinkova (Capt: Myskina)
Captain Anastasia Myskina, through trial and error, has seemingly managed to guide the Hordettes through a seemingly-now-past, decidedly down, disappointing and contentious Russian FC era after playing one of the leading roles in the "zenith" years that saw the team win four FC titles in the 2000's. February's WG II win over Taiwan now puts Russia one tie away from rejoining the World Group, with an eye on another title in '18, for the first time since the shocking upset at the hands of the Dutch in 2016's opening round. While a bevy of NextGen Hordettes are on the way up (Potapova, Zhuk, etc.), and could lead the way to a series of future finals, this team is a mixture of young and old(er) players who have claimed three WTA singles titles in recent weeks, as thirtysomething Elena Vesnina (Indian Wells) joins Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (Monterrey) and Daria Kasatkina (Charleston) to form the bulk of one of the most lethal-looking Russian FC teams in quite a while (we'll just choose to act like that "loaded" '16 1st Round team didn't happen, okay?). Combined, this roster is just 7-11 in career FC singles -- Vesnina 2-2, Pavlyuchenkova 4-7, Kasatkina 1-1 and Anna Blinkova 0-1 -- but it's surely deep enough to actually spread match assignments around so that no one player has to overextend herself. Up to three different Hordettes could very well win singles matches here.
Belgium could be in the process of an unexpected rocket ship ride. The Waffles were still trapped in zone play in 2016, and a win in Moscow would launch them into the World Group in '18. They performed well in a wipeout of Romania in February, but only Elise Mertens (who contributed one win) returns this weekend from the squad that won two months ago. Alison Van Uytvanck (10-4) is the most experienced player here, as the rest of the roster has only notched two FC singles victories. Things would seem to be stacked against them... but they weren't "supposed" to win in February, either.
UKR: Svitolina,Tsurenko,Savchuk,N.Kichenok (Capt: Filima)
GER: Kerber,Siegemund,Goerges,Witthoeft (Capt: Rittner)
Kerber's return to Fed Cup action comes just in time to attempt to keep Germany, the '14 FC runners-up, in the final eight for 2018, while recent Top 10er and two-time '17 singles champ Svitolina's participation in February's win over Australia lifted Ukraine to this position as the nation tries to reach the WG for the third time, and first time since 2012. Germany is armed with depth, with Kerber (12-9 FC) backed by Julia Goerges (4-7) and the clay-loving Laura Siegemund (still looking for her first FC win). Svitolina (9-6) will largely be supported by Lesia Tsurenko (10-9, and also a '17 tour singles champ). Ukraine's chances in this tie will likely turn on whether or not Svitolina's recent mastery over Kerber continues. But even another win over the world #1 (who'll surrender her top ranking on Monday to the inactive Serena when her Stuttgart '16 title points fall off) might not be enough for Ukraine to steal away with the victory in this road tie. Lesia Tsurenko will probably have to contribute at least one win, as well, against either Siegemund or Goerges.
NED: Bertens,Hogenkamp,Burger,Rus (Capt: Haarhuis)
SVK: Cibulkova,Kucova,Cepelova,Sramkova (Capt: Liptak)
The Netherlands rode a wave of success all the way to last year's FC semis after upsetting the Russians in Moscow in one of the biggest shockers in the event's history to set up a clash with the French for a berth in the final. With their momentum on overdrive as they sought their ninth straight successful tie, things went to the deciding doubles against the Pastries, but the Dutch came up short. Then, going in as a strong favorite against Belarus last February, the backwards mojo that began last spring continued as the Netherlands was essentially sucker-punched, looking lost while undertaking an unfamiliar role against a younger, upstart squad. Now, the Dutch are trying to avoid a quick trip back down the ladder to WG II with a loss against Slovakia. In February, it was the Slovaks who pulled off the upset, taking down the Italians (two Quartet members strong) even while playing without Dominika Cibulkova, Jana Cepelova (who was suddenly struck ill and replaced) or what "used to be" Anna Karolina Schmiedlova. Instead, vet Daniela Hantuchova and newcomer Rebecca Sramkova (2-0) led the way.
Cibulkova (20-11) is back this weekend, with Sramkova looking to pull off an encore, and Cepelova and Kristina Kucova waiting in the wings. Kiki Bertens, a Fed Cup Queen without a crown at this time last year, has looked like a more ordinary citizen since that loss to France last year. After losing the WD match (w/ Richel Hogenkamp) to Garcia/Mladenovic in three sets, Bertens' FC luster was dealt a serious blow vs. Belarus. She entered the tie 15-1 in her singles career, but was a saved MP away from going 0-2. She's back on her favored clay surface in Bratislava, though she was just upset by Francesca Schiavone a week ago as a #1 seed on the dirt in Bogota. Hogenkamp, who missed the 1st Round tie, is back, which can only help, but if Sramkova can duplicate her earlier heroics for SVK the edge in this either/or match-up may decidedly shift to the Slovak side of the equation.
Late Note: Cibulkova is out, but I'll stick with SVK, with Sramkova (MVP) again being the unexpected star who picks up the slack.
TPE: Lee Ya-hsuan,Hsu Chieh-yu,Hsu Ching-wen,Chuang Chia-jung (Capt: Wang Shi-ting)
ITA: Errani,Paolini,Trevisan,Rosatello (Capt: Garbin)
Oh, there IS one of the fabled Quartet present on the active roster in Barletta for a home tie that really shouldn't be (Taiwan actually had the right to host this match-up in what would have been the nation's first hosted tie in the current FC format, but forfeited the opportunity), but will Sara Errani be enough (or even able?) to prevent Italy from falling into zone play for the first time since 1997? While the Italians have lost three straight ties, Taiwan had won six straight before falling two months ago to Russia in a rare World Group II appearance for both.
Errani fell to 12-13 (s) in her FC career with her 0-2 mark against SVK in February, but she's still the only member of the Italian team with even a FC singles match to her name. Meanwhile, the underrated TPE squad has been playing above its collective (or at least perceived...hence this week's Fed Cup Twitter poll that saw 80%+ favor Italy here) weight in recent Fed Cup outings, and will likely do so again. Even two singles wins from Errani, something which is in no way assured, might not push Italy over the finish line, as TPE should have the edge in a deciding doubles match even without the Chan sisters, as veteran Chuang Chia-jung would take the lead.
...R.I.P., Italia FC.
🇷🇴🇷🇴🇷🇴 pic.twitter.com/3gcneBSxgg— Sorana Cirstea (@sorana_cirstea) April 20, 2017
GBR: Konta,Watson,Robson,Rae (Capt: Keothavong)
ROU: Halep,Begu,Niculescu,Cirstea (Capt: Nastase)
The last time the Brits successfully climbed out of the zones was the early 1990's, but with new Top 10er Johanna Konta on board they ripped through Europe/Africa in February, with she and Heather Watson going a combined 7-1 in singles. Still, it took the two women combining in doubles to take out Croatia in the Promotional Playoff to get to a third World Group II playoff. Meanwhile, after taking the Czechs to the deciding doubles with a semifinal berth on the line in the 2016 1st Round, the Romanians come in on a three-tie losing streak. Finally, though, (most) of the Swarmette crew that led me (in 2014-15) to predict at least a FC final appearance for Romania in 2016 or '17 have come together in Mamaia to try to stop the slide. Highlighting the roster is Simona Halep (12-5 FC), who leads a four woman strong group that have put up 41 collective career FC singles wins in their careers. But the non-Simona portion of this roster was also present in February when Romania was wiped out by Belgium in Hall of Famer Ilie Nastase's not-so-great '17 debut as Captain.
The Swarmettes likely have the edge on the clay surface, with Halep (hopefully) healthy and Irina-Camelia Begu a '16 springtime clay star leading the way, while Konta's history on the dirt isn't exactly successful, nor extensive. The pressure created by playing at home, especially without past emotional ringleader Alexandra Dulgheru around to rally the troops, is a double-edged sword, though. The Romanians have buckled under the weight of it all before, after all.
...the Swarmettes avoid a spill over the Cliffs of Constanta, barely pulling out multiple edge-of-your-seat nail-biters. Still, GBR's future is bright, with several other young stars waiting in the wings to provide assistance. No matter what happens here, Britain will venture this way again.
AUS: Gavrilova,Barty,Aiava,Dellacqua (Capt: Molik)
SRB: Stojanovic,Krunic,Jorovic,Radanovic (Capt: Jecmenica)
Serbia (We are the Bracelet.) posted one of February's biggest FC surprises by emerging from the Europe/Africa zone without the help of the Ivanovic/Jankovic/Krunic trio, as Ivana Jorovic led the way, with Nina Stojanovic playing the role of dutiful #2. But Aleksandra Krunic, the "lucky charm" in Serbia's greatest FC victories, and, later, the leader in the post-AnaIvo/JJ FC era, when wins have been few and far between, is back this weekend, fresh off her QF run in Bogota (on clay, though this tie is on indoor hard court, on which she's a combined 9-3 in her FC career). Meanwhile, Australia is trying to avoid falling into zone play for the first time since 2009. Looking to what could be a bright future, Captain Alicia Molik has turned to the NextGen. Thing is, recently-newly minted Aussie Dasha Gavrilova hasn't taken to the part thus far (so full of spirit, she's still gone 0-3), while back-from-sabbatical Ash Barty's FC turn in February was her first since 2014. Since then, she's won her maiden tour title in Kuala Lumpur. 16-year old Destanee Aiava is making her debut, while 32-year old Casey Dellacqua provides the veteran leadership, and maybe the deciding doubles hammer with partner Barty.
...the Bracelet shows well and nearly steals it, but Barty is the queen of the party. Though she needs a little help to shut down the festivities.
KAZ: Putintseva,Shvedova,Voskoboeva,Kerimbayeva (Capt: Doskarayev)
CAN: Andreescu,Abanda,Sebov,Dabrowski (Capt: Bruneau)
The 16-year old nearly put together a spectacular Australian Open junior run in January, falling to Rebeka Masarova in the singles semis after being on the edge of victory, but then quickly recovering to take the girls doubles title with then-Bannerette Carson Branstine (who has since officially started to represent Canada). She's been nearly unbeatable since, winning consistently on the ITF circuit, with two titles runs and a combined 19-3 record (her last loss, though, came via a retirement) that picked up steam when she won Canada's first Fed Cup Heart Award with her undefeated (4-0/2-0) performance while leading the nation out of the Americas zone to this tie. The youngest member of a young Canadian team (which consists of 20-year old Francoise Abanda, 18-year old Katherine Sebov joining with 25-year old doubles star Gaby Dabrowski), Andreescu will still likely be called upon to lead it in front of a home crowd in Montreal. The far-more-talked-about Genie Bouchard couldn't do it in multiple FC attempts in recent years, but if Andreescu can she'll pick up even more momentum toward soon becoming Canada's #1-ranked WTA player (she's currently #188).
But the Kazakhs have the firepower and experience to delay the coronation, if they can avoid their (usual) annual underachieving FC moment. Captain Dias Doskarayev finally sat down the singles circus that has been Yaroslava Shvedova's FC career in February, got a win from top-ranked Kazakh Yulia Putintseva, and then leaned on Shvedova sharing the double court with Galina Voskoboeva to get the team out of the Asia/Oceania zone. It may be the recipe for victory here, too. But will Putintseva (5-2 FC) play two singles matches? If so, the edge decidedly shifts to Kazakhstan. If not, another possible Shvedova singles collapse could bring down the entire house.
...I so WANT to pick Canada here, but the Kazakh roster -- assuming full participation from Putintseva -- says this SHOULD be the result. But there's a reason KAZ has often lagged behind its FC potential, and it could well flip this result, as well.
POOL A: Norway,Slovenia,South Africa,Sweden
POOL B: Denmark,Egypt,Lithuania,Luxembourg
SLO (MVP: Jakupovic) and SWE (MVP: Larsson)
**OVERALL FED CUP TITLES**
[Finals since 2010]
5...Czech Republic (5-0)
1...United States (0-1)
[Finals since 2000]
5...Czech Republic (5-0)
4...United States (1-3)
**RECENT FED CUP FINALS**
2000 USA d. ESP 5-0
2001 BEL d. RUS 2-1
2002 SVK d. ESP 3-1
2003 FRA d. USA 4-1
2004 RUS d. FRA 3-2
2005 RUS d. FRA 3-2
2006 ITA d. BEL 3-2
2007 RUS d. ITA 4-0
2008 RUS d. ESP 4-0
2009 ITA d. USA 4-0
2010 ITA d. USA 3-1
2011 CZE d. RUS 3-2
2012 CZE d. SRB 3-1
2013 ITA d. RUS 4-0
2014 CZE d. GER 3-1
2015 CZE d. RUS 3-2
2016 CZE d. FRA 3-2
Of course, I'll have a full wrap-up of the entire Fed Cup weekend in the regular weekly post following all the weekend action, as well as the full "Fed Cup Captain Threat Level Chart."