This weekend not only brings out the Easter Bunny, but a host of Fed Cup ties around the world.
France are at home to Romania and Australia will be hosting Belarus in the two semi-final ties that will dictate where the 2019 Fed Cup Final takes place in November.
I feel like we have a really unique team at the moment and it's a bloody good one," she said. "I think we've got more than a good chance of winning Ashleigh Barty
Winners of the four World Group play-offs will retain their place in the top tier of the competition, while the losers in the World Group II play-offs will be relegated to compete in their respective Zone Group I region in 2020.
All 10 Fed Cup ties will be broadcast by the 20 nations competing on Saturday and Sunday, with Latvia v Germany exceptionally taking place on 19-20 April.
In Sydney, former World No 1 Victoria Azarenka was surprisingly given the nod to play singles for Belarus in their Fed Cup semi-final against Australia, and will meet her often doubles partner Ashleigh Barty in the second match on Saturday.
The double Australian Open champion was chosen ahead of World No 35 Aliaksandra Sasnovich, probably because of her success on the blue hard courts Down Under, where she has also won the Brisbane and Sydney titles.
It will be her first singles appearance in the Fed Cup since a World Group playoff against Russia in 2016 after she had a baby and then had to limit her travel due to a custody dispute.
Azarenka, who teamed up with Barty for doubles at the Australia Open and again at Miami last month, where they made the semi-finals, beat her partner the only time the pair have met in singles, last year in Tokyo, but since then the Australian has moved into the World’s top 10, and won her first Premier Tier tournament in Miami last month.
Barty said the 6-4 6-2 loss to Azarenka in Tokyo had been ‘one way traffic’ and expected the World No 61 to draw on her success in Australia when they clash after former US Open champion Samantha Stosur’s opening match against World No 10 Aryna Sabalenka.
“In Australia she’s had some of her best results,” Barty said. “She’s very familiar with this surface, with this court, and I think in a way it’s remarkable what she’s been able to do after having (her son) Leo and coming back so quickly and being so successful.”
Stosur’s selection by Australia captain Alicia Molik to open the tie against the hard-hitting Sabalenka was surprising, given the 35-year-old’s struggles at home tournaments.
The 2011 US Open champion has never gone beyond the fourth round at the Australian Open and struggled in both Brisbane and Sydney, but Molik said her experience was what swayed it in her favour over the higher ranked Daria Gavrilova.
“It’s a player Sam’s really familiar with and that’s really important in a tie like this, one where no doubt experience has to count as well,” Molik said of Stosur, who made her Fed Cup debut back in 2003,.
“It’d be incredible if I saw her on the weekend get the best out of herself.
“She’s achieved so much and more than most in her career and you talk about longevity and professionalism – you’ve got your number one person sitting right here.”
The reverse singles and doubles match, if required, are scheduled for Sunday.
The two teams are evenly matched on paper but Barty, who boasts a Fed Cup record of 14 wins and just 2 losses, is confident seven-time champions Australia can end their long wait to make another final.
“I feel like we have a really unique team at the moment and it’s a bloody good one,” she said. “I think we’ve got more than a good chance of winning.”
In the weekend’s other semi-final, Simona Halep is eyeing taking another step closer to adding a maiden Fed Cup winner’s medal to her 2018 French Open crown when Romania face France in Rouen.
Romania have equalled their best Fed Cup showing, the semi-finals in 1973, and having knocked out defending champions Czech Republic in the quarter-finals, World No 2 Halep is desperate to guide Romania into a first final.
She has been using manager Virginia Ruzici, who played in the 1973 team, as a source of inspiration.
“Virginia played in that semi-final and I asked her about that experience and she told me,” Halep, who has a 20-9 record in the competition, told fedcup.com.
“She was pretty relaxed in the past and not so stressed like us now.”
Romania edged the Czechs 3-2 in an epic quarter-final at Ostrava secured by a three-set win in the decisive doubles by Irina-Camelia Begu and Monica Niculescu over Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova.
“It was the best moment and I was jumping around as I was so happy,” recalled Halep, who will likely share singles duty with Mihaela Buzarnescu, ranked at 30.
Two-time champions France are bidding to reach the final for the sixth time and first since 2016, when they suffered a 3-2 defeat to the Czechs.
World No 21 Caroline Garcia, now back in favour after a two-year exile, leads the French team with Pauline Parmentier (ranked 55) and Alize Cornet (58) vying for the second singles spot.
Cornet has already set the tone for the weekend by claiming France may need a ‘little miracle’ to progress to the November final.
Jelena Ostapenko, a hero of Latvian sport at just 20 when she won the French Open two summers ago, is out to enhance her youthful legend here again in Riga this week as she leads her nation’s bid for promotion to the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group in a fascinating play-off against Germany.
Ostapenko is poised to reach another landmark by taking sole ownership of the record for most Fed Cup singles wins by any Latvian player, edging ahead of her injured team mate Anastasija Sevastova if she wins just one rubber to take her tally to 17 in the tie that starts on Friday.
Yet in the absence of Sevastova, Latvia’s current number one with whom Ostapenko has forged such a formidable partnership during the team’s triumphs in six straight ties, the 21-year-old looks to have her work cut out against a German team which suffered its own blow this week when Angelique Kerber was ruled out with flu.
Still, though, the visitors’ vast experience and strength in depth makes them favourites to extend their six-year stay in the World Group with Julia Goerges the top-ranked player on view at No 17, and Andrea Petkovic, the world No 71, in action in Friday’s singles.
With Latvia forced to turn to Diana Marcinkevica, the World No 267 who hasn’t played a tour-level singles match all year, the onus is even more on Ostapenko, who has had a fairly underwhelming campaign after an injury-hampered preparation and now lies at 29 in the rankings compared to being in the top five this time last year.
Ostapenko has been named in the doubles too and the responsibility of gleaning three points, which realistically looks the only way the hosts can prevail, is something she reckons she really savours.
Certainly, having sorted out tickets for more than 100 of her friends and family among a probable 10,000 full-house in the Arena Riga, the national idol is assured of a rapturous welcome when she opens the tie against Petkovic.
“I think I deal with pressure a lot so I don’t really feel any more here,” Ostapenko said at Thursday’s draw in the Arena.
“For me, it’s great to play at home again, I have great memories from the February tie [when Latvia beat Slovakia 4-0] and I’m just really looking forward to showing my best performance.
“You have to show everything in this tournament; playing for your country, all the emotion, I actually play much better in team competition. I think it’s going to be great.”
And tough. The experienced Petkovic, who had not been expecting to be called on until Kerber’s illness, pushed Ostapenko to the limits in a three-setter in last year’s US Open.
“I’m looking forward to making this just as a close or even swinging it in my direction,” said one of the tour’s liveliest characters.
“It’s going to be great kicking off the weekend against Jelena,” added Petkovic, who says she’s become ‘pretty good at blocking out’ all the noisy home support during her 12 years experience of Fed Cup travel.
“We’re all sad Angie’s not with us because we were looking forward to having this old ‘thirty-something’ quartet, who have had big success but I still think we have a great team.”
Goerges, an 11-year Fed Cup veteran, says she’s seen ‘so many results down the years that you wouldn’t have expected’ that she has to be on guard against 26-year-old Marcinkevica, who believes this will be the highlight of her own decade of campaigning with the Latvian team.
Latvian captain Adrians Zguns only made his decision to hand Marcinkevica the second singles spot on Thursday night, having finally decided not to gamble on promising 18-year-old Daniela Vismane.
For German captain Jens Gerlach, defeat is unthinkable: “I think it’s very important for Germany, the Federation and the team to keep in the World Group,” he said.
“It’s very prestigious to be among the top eight teams in the world and we’ve come here to win.”
Other ties this weekend include World Group Play-Offs between the Czech Republic against Canada, USA versus Switzerland while Belgium take on Spain; and World Group II Play-Offs Russia v Italy, Japan v Netherlands and Slovakia v Brazil.