Prague | Can weakened USA beat Czechs?
The 2018 Fed Cup is suffering from a similar malaise as the Davis Cup in that the top players are not making themselves available to contest the final this weekend at the O2 Arena in Prague where the Czech Republic is looking to end its losing run against the USA.
I make it about the players. They’re the ones competing for their country Kathy Rinaldi
The Czech Fed Cup team, who have won the title in five of the last seven years, are hoping to harness all the home support they can muster against the Americans who beat them in the semi-finals in 2017 at Bradenton in Florida.
These two nations are by far the most prolific champions in the competition, with the USA winning 18 times since its inauguration at The Queen’s Club in 1963, while the Czech Republic lies second with 10 titles, five of them as Czechoslovakia.
USA holds a 10-2 head to head advantage, and has won the last eight meetings in a row, so in this latest battle of Fed Cup giants, the hosts are looking for their first win over the USA in 33 years, but both teams are missing their top players.
The Czechs’ last victory against USA came in the 1985 Final when, as Czechoslovakia, Helena Sukova and Hana Mandlikova posted singles triumphs to steer the team to victory.
The Americans hit back in the Final the following year when, coincidentally, it was the only time that the Czechs and Americans have previously played in Prague, with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova winning the trophy back for USA.
Ahead of this year’s final, however, World No 8 Karolina Pliskova pulled out with a calf injury and, during the lead-up this week, Petra Kvitova has been laid low with a virus.
Kvitova, the current No 7 in the world after a stunning year of five titles, has been a stalwart of the Czech team through all five of those title runs, and won all four of the rubbers she played this year.
Should she play, and her team win the title, it would take her to joint third in the overall list of titles won, equalling Rosie Casals’ six, and behind only Chris Evert and Billie Jean King.
If Kvitova is unable to play, then Captain Petr Pala still has some national depth to draw on since four of the top 10 doubles players ensure that, should the final go to a deciding fifth rubber, the home nation will be in a very strong position.
It could be the singles rubbers, though, that determine the result, and fortunately Katerina Siniakova and Barbora Strycova are also ranked 31 and 33 respectively in singles.
As for the USA, their biggest names are also absent from the final, with both Serena and Venus Williams not having played since the US Open, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, both finalists in the WTA Finals and WTA Elite Trophy respectively, injured and Coco Vandeweghe struggling with form since her ankle injury at Wimbledon.
Leading the USA campaign is World No 36 Danielle Collins, one of three debutantes, with No 52 Sofia Kenin and No 15 in doubles, Nicole Melichar. No 63 Alison Riske making up the US squad.
Collins has played just three Fed Cup rubbers, with her only win coming in singles against Andrea Petkovic in the 2017 quarter-finals.
Recently she made the quarters of the big Tokyo Premier via qualifying, beating Garbiñe Muguruza and taking Pliskova to a final-set tiebreak.
Inexperienced though the team may be, their talent is not in short supply, with Collins and Kenin both fixtures in the world’s Top 50, while Melichar is a Top 20 doubles player.
More important than the personnel is the camaraderie that Captain Kathy Rinaldi seems to engender within her teams and while the players may be different, the philosophy remains the same.
“I make it about the players. They’re the ones competing for their country,” Rinaldi explained after the semi-finals in April.
“I try to bring organisation, experience, preparation, lots of homework. I have a great coach in Lisa Raymond – and having fun is an element too.”
It has been a strategy that has worked for Rinaldi in her two years as Fed Cup captain so far, but facing the Czechs in Prague is unquestionably their toughest test yet.
Currently the two nations are top and second in the Fed Cup rankings, and the Czechs will remain at No 1 if they win.
If they lose, the Czechs will drop to No 2 for the first time since February 2014, replaced at the top by the USA.
To reach the finals, the Czech Republic beat Germany 4-1 while the USA beat France, 3-2.