Fed Cup juggernaut the Czech Republic will host the event’s showpiece this weekend. The 2011-2012 champions take on Germany, who haven’t made it this far since 1992. The teams are fairly evenly matched, which should make for a hard fought and entertaining couple of days in Prague’s O2 Arena.
The main disparity is that the Czechs can boast a double Wimbledon champion and current world number three on their roster. Petra Kvitova has been a loyal and dedicated Fed Cup stalwart since 2007: her country couldn’t have risen from outside the World Group to the top of the rankings without her. Making her an even more formidable force in this year’s final is the fact that she has enjoyed arguably her best ever season on the WTA Tour. As well as hoisting a second Venus rosewater Dish, she won titles in New Haven and Wuhan and came within a few games of triumph in Beijing.
Of course, Petra is far from the most reliable performer on the women’s circuit (as evidenced by her notorious loss to then-unknown Luksika Kumkhum in the first round of the Australian Open), and her record against the likely German singles players is far from dominant. She is 3-4 in her head-to-head with Andrea Petkovic, and despite holding 3-2 and 2-1 records over Angelique Kerber and Sabine Lisicki respectively, none of those victories came easily.
Kerber and Petkovic are precisely the kind of players who can bamboozle and frustrate a mentally foggy Kvitova. Could at least one of them pull off the upset on hostile soil? Kerber is coming into the final in less than stellar form – she hasn’t won three matches in a row since reaching the Stanford final in July. Yet she has risen to the occasion in Fed Cup play this season, fighting jet-lag to win both of her singles matches against Australia back in April. The world number 10 has a tendency to become irate when things aren’t going her way on court, but she almost always fights to the last ball and will not be fazed by an antagonistic crowd.
Petkovic will travel to Prague from Sofia, where she won the WTA Tournament of Champions. That was the latest triumph in what has been a long recovery from a series of major injuries, and a testament to the 27-year-old’s fighting spirit. Blessed with a fun, versatile game, she also has a winning record over the Czech Republic’s second singles player, Lucie Safarova.
Safarova’s season has been somewhat inconsistent, with early round losses scattered among decent results and the odd highlight, the biggest of which being her semi-final appearance at Wimbledon. Currently ranked 17th, she has played a key role in the Czech Fed Cup team in recent years. In the 2012 final, she took out both Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic, and in the 2014 semi-final she wore down a determined Sara Errani. Her powerful game is well-suited to a fast indoor court; if she can keep her unforced error count within acceptable limits she should have a decent shot at winning both of her matches.
If the four singles matches do follow the WTA rankings, with Kvitova winning both of her clashes and the Kerber-Petkovic combo beating Safarova, this tie might be decided by the doubles rubber. This is where things get a little murkier. The highest ranked Czech doubles player, Kveta Peschke, is not in the squad. Nor is the host country’s second best doubles player, Andrea Hlavackova, who teamed up with Lucie Hradecka to form one of the tour’s most successful duos from 2011-2013. Instead, it seems that captain Petr Pala will nominate Karolina Pliskova to play alongside Hradecka. Pliskova has climbed to 24th in the singles rankings and won a couple of doubles titles this year with sister Kristyna, but she has never partnered Hradecka in competitive play.
Controversy surrounded Barbara Rittner’s nomination of Sabine Lisicki for the German squad. On the surface, it seems odd to opt for Lisicki rather than doubles specialist Anna-Lena Groenefeld, especially when Julia Goerges is Germany’s fourth pick. Groenefeld and Goerges won an indoor title in Paris earlier this season, reached the quarter-finals of Wimbledon and finished the year as the world’s 20th ranked doubles team. Lisicki won the Miami crown with Martina Hingis, but she hasn’t taken to the doubles court since May and hasn’t partnered Goerges since Indian Wells 2012. With Lisicki accused by some of causing friction within the German team, a decisive doubles match could be fraught with extra tension.
Triumph on Sunday would see the Czech Republic overtake Australia to become the second most successful country in Fed Cup history (behind the United States). Victory for Germany would be that country’s first since Steffi Graf’s heyday. Much will depend on Kvitova’s state of mind. If she is feeling depleted at the end of a gruelling season, Kerber and Petkovic are more than capable of taking advantage. If Kvitova manages to summon her most potent tennis in front of the home crowd, however, the Germans cannot afford any slip-ups against Safarova or Hradecka/Pliskova.
Prediction: Czech Republic to win 3-2.