Czech Republic vs. Serbia: O2 Arena, Prague, Czech Republic
Czech Republic: Petra Kvitova, Lucie Safarova, Andrea Hlavackova, Lucie Hradecka
Serbia: Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Bojana Jovanovski, Aleksandra Krunic
It’s that time of year again – the 2012 Fed Cup final is upon us. The 2012 edition will pit the defending champions, the Czech Republic against Serbia, who are making their first appearance in the Fed Cup finals.
The x-factor in this tie is Petra Kvitova. The World No. 8, who went 2-0 in the Fed Cup final in 2011, has had a somewhat disappointing year plagued by injuries and illness following her breakout year in 2011. Kvitova, who was forced to withdraw from the WTA Championships as defending champion after just one match with bronchitis, was not cleared to practice by her doctors until Wednesday. When healthy, Kvitova is a force indoors – her loss to Radwanska at the WTA Championships was her first loss on indoor hard courts in more than a year.
Due to the question marks surrounding Kvitova, much of the pressure for the hosts falls on the shoulders of Lucie Safarova. Safarova will open singles play on Saturday against Ana Ivanovic, who she leads 3-2 in head-to-head meetings. Safarova has won three straight matches against Ivanovic, the last coming in the quarterfinals in Sydney in January. Her head-to-head against Jelena Jankovic is a much different story, as the Serb hold a 5-1 advantage. It’s going to be crucial to Czech hopes for Safarova to get them off to a good start in the opening match.
The Serbian squad is not without their own issues. Ivanovic is entering the tie suffering from lingering right hip issues, an injury she sustained in her final tournament of the year in Moscow. Despite the injury, Ivanovic is coming off her best season in singles since 2008; she reached the quarterfinals at the US Open, her first appearance at that stage since winning Roland Garros in 2008. She will also finish the year ranked World No. 12, her highest ranking since dropping out of the top 10 in 2009. And Jankovic? Sometimes I wonder if Jelena is really a tennis player anymore. Jankovic did not win a title in 2012, nor did she make it past the fourth round at any Grand Slam. However, Jelena tends to show up for Fed Cup. She’s 3-0 in her Fed Cup matches this year, and was just awarded her second Fed Cup Heart Award.
If the tie comes down to the doubles, no doubt the Czechs would have the advantage. Hlavackova/Hradecka won the 2011 French Open title, and were runners-up at Wimbledon, the US Open and the Year-End Championships in 2012. They also took home a silver medal at the London Olympics, as they fell to the Williams sisters in straight sets. While Serbia has Krunic/Jovanovski listed on paper, Dejan Vranes could also go with Krunic/Jankovic. Hlavackova and Hradecka are the #3 and #4 doubles players in the world while Krunic is ranked #335 and Jovanovski is ranked #1067. Despite all odds, I think this rubber could be the most interesting of them all.
Regardless of her partner, Aleksandra Krunic has to see action at some point in this tie. The 19-year-old Krunic is a bit of a Fed Cup wonder; while she’s struggled in a sense to make her breakthrough on the WTA tour (she’s currently ranked 167 and made her first WTA quarterfinal in Baku this year, losing to….Jovanovski), she’s shone brightly when thrust into the pressure cooker of Fed Cup. What Krunic lacks in size, as she can’t be taller than 5’4”, she makes up for in heart and incredible doubles prowess. Her reactions are my favorite thing in tennis. Krunic and Jovanovski have vastly out-performed their doubles rankings in high-pressure Fed Cup situations. Observe.
Exhibit A: Krunic and Jovanovski led a Jankovic and Ivanovic-less Serbia past Canada in the 2011 World Group II Quarterfinal, securing Serbia’s place in the World Group Playoffs last year.
Exhibit B: Krunic (partnering Jankovic) singlehandedly saved two match points in what became a 26 75 97 win over Slovakia in the deciding rubber of the World Group Playoffs in 2011 on the road.
Krunic and Jovanovski also clinched victory for Serbia over Belgium in the 2012 World Group First Round with a 76(2) 46 61 win over Wickmayer/Van Uytvanck, also on the road.
If I’m Vranes, I’d go out on a limb and stick with Krunic and Jovanovski. Granted, they’ve never been in *this* big of a situation before, but the pair have clinched two ties for this team in the past 18 months. Considering Serbia is a huge underdog in the doubles rubber anyway, how can it hurt?