WASHINGTON, April 19, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
The Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group semifinals have arrived and it is anyone’s guess who will lift the championship trophy later this year. In one semifinal, Australia and Belarus are meeting for the first time and each boasts a bonafide Top 10 star. In the other, between Romania and France, everyone wonders if World No. 2 Simona Halep can lead her team to its first final?
While one tie is being contested on an outdoor hard court named after an Australian tennis great (Patrick Rafter) in the Southern Hemisphere and the other will take place 16,586 kilometers away on indoor clay in the capital of the northern French region of Normandy, one thing’s certain: there will be a new Fed Cup champion come November 10. That’s because neither the reigning champion, Czech Republic, nor the 2017 winner and last year’s runner up, United States, advanced out of the first round this year. Instead, they will be playing this weekend in World Group playoff ties, both needing to win in order to avoid relegation to World Group II.
Australia versus Belarus
In Brisbane, the capital city of Queensland, Australia, the Aussies will look for a solid 1-2 punch from World No. 9 Ashleigh Barty in singles and Sam Stosur, ranked No. 17, in doubles. Team Australia have enjoyed a storied past – seven-times a Fed Cup champion – but they’ve not competed in the World Group since 2015. Now, after beating Team USA 3-2 in Asheville, North Carolina, two months ago, Australia is vying for its first Fed Cup final since 1993.
Belarus, with a solid lineup that includes World No. 10 Aryna Sabalenka, No. 35 Aliaksandra Sasnovich and No. 61 Victoria Azarenka, are looking to return to the World Group final for the first time since 2017. They’ve been a staple in the World Group of eight nations for the past three Fed Cups. In the first round, they shutout Germany 4-0, which played without either Angelique Kerber or Julia Goerges.
When the Australia-Belarus draw ceremony was held on Friday in Brisbane, both teams opted to go with experience. Thus, the Aussies will open with Barty at No. 1 singles and and No. 77 Stosur at No. 2 singles instead of No. 58 Daria Gavrilova. Belarus will counter with Sabalenka at No. 1 singles and Azarenka at No. 2 singles. Saturday’s first rubber will feature Stosur versus Sabalenka followed by Barty against Azarenka. Stosur will be going after her 30th Fed Cup singles win. They will play reverse singles on Sunday. The doubles rubber will pair Australian Open champion Stosur with Barty against Vera Lapko and Lidziya Marozova.
An intangible that could favor Australia is Barty enters the semifinal tie with an 11-match winning streak in singles and doubles. However, it should be noted that when Barty and Sabalenka meet on Sunday for the fourth time in 16 months, it’s the Belarusian who leads the career head-to-head 2-1.
France versus Romania
Across the globe in Rouen, France, the French will host Romania in just the second meeting between these two nations. In their only previous meeting, back in 1976, Romania won 3-0 in a consolation final. This time, the two-time champion French team has its sights set on reaching the Fed Cup final for a sixth time. If they beat Romania to reach this year’s final, it would be their first since 2016, when they lost 3-2 to the Czech Republic.
Earlier this year, the Romanians were a surprise 3-2 winner against the mighty Czechs, led by World No. 2 Simona Halep and No. 30 Mihaela Buzarnescu at singles and backed by a quality doubles pair in Irina-Camelia Begu and Monica Niculescu. France, which advanced 3-1 over Belgium, will rely heavily on World No. 21 Caroline Garcia in singles and doubles World No. 3 Kristina Mladenovic if they are to advance to the end of the season final.
World Group playoffs
The stakes in this weekend’s World Group playoffs are simple: Win and remain in next year’s World Group of eight nations, or lose and be relegated to World Group II for 2020.
Although neither Petra Kvitova nor Karolina Pliskova will be available this weekend for the Czechs and Bianca Andreescu is sidelined for Canada (recovering from a shoulder injury) when the two teams meet in Prostejov – and Belinda Bencic is absent from Switzerland’s lineup against the U.S. at San Antonio, Texas – there will be plenty of big names competing.
The U.S. squad will include World No. 8 Sloane Stephens and No. 14 Madison Keys, while Germany is anchored by No. 17 Julia Goerges, an 11-year Fed Cup veteran, in place of World No. 5 Angelique Kerber, who is battling the flu. The Germans will face a Latvia team in Riga that will rely heavily on No. 29 Jelena Ostapenko. Meanwhile, No. 19 Garbiñe Muguruza is leading the charge for Spain at Kortrijk against a Belgium team that does not include No. 18 Elise Mertens and will rely instead on No. 52 Alison Van Uytvanck.
German captain Jens Gerlach has the right attitude for the weekend. He told the Fed Cup website that defeat is unthinkable. “I think it’s very important for Germany, the Federation and the team to keep in the World Group,” he said. “It’s very prestigious to be among the top eight teams in the world and we’ve come here to win.”