Photo: Dusan HeinDominika Cibulkova (SVK)
Dominika Cibulkova has the perfect chance this weekend to celebrate her run to the Australian Open final in front of her home fans as she spearheads Slovak Republic’s 2014 Fed Cup by BNP Paribas challenge in Bratislava.
Cibulkova opens the first round tie against Germany with an opening rubber clash with Andrea Petkovic in what will be her first match since playing Li Na in the Australian Open final 13 days ago.
"It was so nice," Cibulkova said of her homecoming. "All the people here were a little crazy, my final was all round the country, the people compared it to when the guys won the hockey world cup 10 years ago. It was really nice how they welcomed me home, it was such a great experience, and I know tickets for this tie were sold out three days ago, so it’s a big thing.”
The tie itself is also rather a ‘big thing’. Germany, blessed with its best generation of female players since the era of Steffi Graf and Anke Huber, with Petkovic, Angelique Kerber, Sabine Lisicki, Julia Goerges and the evergreen doubles specialist Anna-Lene Groenefeld, is looking for another stab at the World Group play-offs after suffering a 3-2 defeat to Serbia at that stage last year.
Slovak Republic, meanwhile, is looking to reach just its second World Group semifinal since 2002 and build on its run to the last four last year.
Meanwhile, Spain’s hopes of advancing to the semifinals for the first time in six years took a considerable boost during Friday’s draw ceremony when referee Andreas Egli confirmed the absence of world No. 28 Lucie Safarova from the Czech singles line-up.
The 27-year-old, who is hoping to be fit to play doubles if called upon, joined teammate Petra Kvitova in the sick wing after coming down with an illness upon arriving in Seville earlier in the week.
The absence of two top players would leave many nations digging deep into the rankings for potential alternatives, but, such is the strength and depth of the Czech talent pool, captain Petr Pala had two ready-made replacements to call upon with world No. 34 Klara Zakopalova leading the seven-time champions this weekend.
She takes on Spanish youngster Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor in Saturday’s second rubber in her first Fed Cup tie since 2006, while teammate Zahlavova Strycova goes up against Carla Suarez Navarro, who boasts a 5-1 Fed Cup singles record on clay.
“I’m a little disappointed [about losing Safarova],” said Czech captain Petr Pala. “The temperature was low at the beginning of the week and unfortunately it cost us her. But we still have a great team and I think it is a very even tie.
Over in Hobart, Russian captain Anastasia Myskina sprang a surprise at the draw for the World Group first round tie between Australia and Russia by promoting the youngest, lowest-ranked player in her green team to the No. 2 singles spot against the heavily favoured hosts.
Veronika Kudermetova, 16-years-old and ranked world No. 650, has been handed a daunting Fed Cup debut against Aussie spearhead Samantha Stosur, former US Open champion and Australia’s leading Fed Cup singles winner.
Myskina also went against rankings in her No. 1 singles selection, promoting word No. 241 Irina Khromacheva ahead of Victoria Kan, who is ranked 83 places above her. The 18-year-old Khromacheva, world junior champion in 2011, opens the tie against Aussie No. 2, and fellow lefty, Casey Dellacqua.
Christina McHale will lead the USA team into battle in their World Group first round clash against last year’s champion Italy with an opening rubber clash against Karin Knapp in Ohio on Saturday.
The 21-year-old has never played Knapp before but will be hoping to get the home side off to a perfect start in their bid to reach the World Group semifinals for the first time since 2010.
Reigning champion Italy, meanwhile, is without the mainstays of last year's victorious team but captain Corrado Barazzutti is still able to field a quartet with two top 100 singles players in world No. 40 Knapp and No. 84 Camila Giorgi.
For comprehensive draw stories from each tie, click the relevant link below:
World Group first round
USA v Italy
Spain v Czech Republic
Slovak Republic v Germany
Australia v Russia
World Group II first round
Canada v Serbia
Sweden v Poland
France v Switzerland
Argentina v Japan