Since the year-end championships mark the climax to the WTA season, the Fed Cup final sometimes feels like an anticlimax. Spurned by many of the sport’s leading ladies, the national team competition attracts scant attention outside the most devoted fans. This final in Prague, which also hosts the Davis Cup final next month, offers a bit more intrigue than usual with the presence of several charismatic figures. Read tentative answers to six questions that will decide whether the defending champions retain their title or whether Serbia captures its first.
1. How much does Kvitova’s health matter?
Undone by a viral illness in Istanbul, the Czech flagship surfaced from bed rest to play an exhibition set against Sharapova on Monday. In the same stadium where she will contest the final, Kvitova looked woefully listless as her illness clearly still troubled her. With only a few additional days of rest, one wonders how much of her energy she will have recovered. Although she should overpower either Serb on an indoor hard court, Kvitova can lose to anyone when sluggish and lacking for rhythm. The Czechs cannot trust their singles #2, the flaky lefty Safarova, to win both of her matches after she lost both rubbers in last year’s final to competition of similar quality to what she will face this weekend. If Kvitova cannot contribute, then, their prognosis will swing from optimistic to grim in a flash. Undefeated indoors since 2010, she has demonstrated her ability in those conditions to devastating effect in Fed Cup, often played under a roof.
2. Will Ivanovic continue to underachieve in Fed Cup?
Appearing only sparsely in the competition over the last few years, the top-ranked Serb has won just two of six singles rubbers. In the semifinal against Russia this spring, she split a pair of three-setters with two opponents already mired in abysmal seasons, Pavlyuchenkova and Kuznetsova. Many have questioned Ivanovic’s commitment to the patriotic cause, noting that she spends relatively little time in Serbia and has participated in Fed Cup hardly more than necessary to ensure her Olympic eligibility. Also clouding the atmosphere is a chronic feud with Jankovic, but that friction appears to have eased lately. Despite the uncertain status of Kvitova, Ivanovic probably must start the weekend with a victory over Safarova for the visitors to harbor a serious chance of the title. Clearly the superior player, she has lost their last three meetings and recurrently struggles against lefties.
3. Will Jankovic continue to overachieve in Fed Cup?
The opposite of her countrywoman in her Fed Cup fortunes, much to her satisfaction, Jankovic famously has entered the team competition even when suffering from the ailments that never desert her for long, such as a leg injury and a respiratory infection. She has compiled a startling 5-0 singles record in Fed Cup World Group action, mostly against Russia, and appears to thrive in the more combative surroundings. Unlike Ivanovic, this veteran should not find the raucous Prague crowd intimidating as she attempts to find out just how much energy remains in Kvitova on Saturday. If she wears down the Czech #1 with her usual war of attrition, the exhaustion might linger for the following day. But Jankovic herself has succumbed to the attrition wrought by her grinding playing style and overstuffed schedule at her prime, rarely stringing together any matches this year. She has won just one match against a top-ten opponent since August 2011 (Stosur in Dubai) and spent much of 2012 losing endless, unsightly matches in which she had held a substantial lead (five after holding match point).
4. How much does home-court advantage matter?
From their enthusiastic but expectant compatriots, the defending champions will feel a combination of support and pressure. Hosting a marquee Fed Cup tie can prove a mixed blessing at best, as the Serbian squad could testify, and the Czechs may have benefited last year from visiting Moscow for their first final together. While the choice of an indoor hard court should maximize their power, it should showcase Ivanovic’s first strikes as well. And a substantial Serbian contingent should appear in Prague, not far from Serbia, so the visitors should not feel far out of their depth. As one would hope for a Fed Cup final, then, the tie should hinge almost entirely upon the quality of tennis and the strength of each team’s spirit.
5. What happens if it comes down to the doubles?
The Czechs would hold a considerable advantage with the #2-ranked duo of Hradecka and Hlavackova, runners-up at Wimbledon, the Olympics, the US Open, and the year-end championships. If the doubles rubber does decide the tie, Serbia likely would replace its current pairing of Jovanovski and Krunic with its two singles players. Ivanovic and Jankovic lost their only previous Fed Cup World Group doubles rubber, however, and their lack of experience together surely would cost them at critical moments. If either of them plays a long singles rubber or suffers even a faint recurrence of injury, Serbian captain Dejan Vranes would face a difficult choice between the fitter or the more talented squad. But either almost certainly would lose, so the Serbs likely must win three of the four singles rubbers, which in turn means at least one victory over Kvitova. When at her best, the Czech #1 forms an almost unanswerable combination with Hlavackova and Hradecka that can secure the necessary three victories against virtually anyone.
6. Who wins?
Czech Republic, 3-1.