- Richard Pagliaro, Tennis.com
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The visiting team has split the World Group semifinals in seven of the past 10 years, but will that trend continue this weekend? Defending Fed Cup champion Italy travels to the Czech Republic in a meeting of nations that have combined to capture the past five Fed Cup championships. Australia hosts Germany in a tie of two teams aiming to advance to the Fed Cup final for the first time in more than two decades. Here's our final four preview.
Italy at Czech Republic
CEZ Arena Ostrava, Czech Republic
The semifinal stage presents a familiar plotline as the two nations square off in the semis for the fourth time in the past five years.
A year ago, Sara Errani beat Lucie Safarova in the opener and Roberta Vinci scored a pair of singles wins to lead Italy to a 3-1 win over the Czechs on the slow red clay of Palermo. Italian captain Corrado Barazzutti faces an interesting decision for the rematch on a much faster track. Does he start 31-year-old veteran Vinci, opt for 50th-ranked Karin Knapp (who scored a pair of singles victories in Italy's 3-1 win over the USA in the quarterfinals) or select rising No. 54 Camila Giorgi, who reached her first WTA final in Katowice over the weekend and has won nine of her past 12 matches?
Vinci's versatility and ability to use her slice backhand to change the pace has helped her defuse the Czech power players in the past, but she's mired in horrific 2-9 start to the season and enters this tie searching for confidence. Giorgi, who played through qualifying to reach the US Open fourth round last summer, has the aggressive baseline game suited to the surface, but owns only one Fed Cup appearance to her credit.
Kvitova is the key here. While the world No. 6 can be wildly streaky and occasionally flaky under pressure, she is one of the best pure ball strikers in the game, she's 6-0 lifetime versus Errani, she plays her best tennis indoors and the lefty is one of the most imposing Fed Cup players in the world. The 2011 Wimbledon champion has won 14 of her past 16 Fed Cup singles matches. Errani and Vinci are the former top-ranked doubles team, but Czechs have depth with reigning US Open doubles and mixed-doubles champ Andrea Hlavackova and No. 31 Klara Koukalova, already a 20-match winner this season. The faster surface favors the flatter-hitting Czech power players; the home team has won the past three semis between the two nations and gone on to capture the Cup.
The Pick: Czech Republic, 3-2
Germany at Australia
Queensland Tennis Centre, Brisbane, Australia
Traditional tennis powers play for a long-awaited return to the final.
Germany boasts a higher-ranked cast -- No. 7 Angelique Kerber, No. 28 Andrea Petkovic, who is fresh off winning the biggest title of her career in Charleston, and No. 94 Julia Goerges -- and will be driven to reach its first Fed Cup final since 1992, when Steffi Graf and Anke Huber led the Germans to a 2-1 triumph over Spain.
Australian No. 1 Samantha Stosur, who has been prone to playing tentative, nervous tennis on home soil, has not won back-to-back matches since February, when she dropped just nine games in a pair of singles wins to power Australia to a 4-0 sweep of Russia in the Fed Cup quarterfinals. Stosur must step up for the home side to reach its first final since 1993, and she has the ability to do so. The 2011 US Open champion has won eight of her past 10 Fed Cup matches, including straight-sets wins over Kerber and Petkovic in a 3-2 victory in the 2012 Fed Cup Playoffs on red clay in Stuttgart. Australian No. 2 Casey Dellacqua has been resurgent, winning 12 of her past 15 matches.
German captain Barbara Rittner played doubles on the nation's last Fed Cup championship squad and has several options if doubles is decisive here. Goerges and Petkovic won the dead-doubles point the last time these teams faced off, and Anna-Lena Groenefeld, ranked No. 13 in doubles, has extensive Fed Cup experience. Former world No. 1 doubles player Stosur is 6-0 lifetime in Fed Cup doubles and both Dellacqua and Ashleigh Barty are top 20-ranked doubles players. Managing nerves will be crucial, but I see the Aussies celebrating a final return on Sunday.
The Pick: Australia 3, Germany 2
• • •World Group Playoff
France at United States
Chaifetz Arena, St. Louis, MO
Playing without the Williams sisters, the Americans turn to players with promising futures. France's future has already arrived.
Probable French singles starters Alize Cornet and Caroline Garcia tuned up for this tie winning titles over the weekend. Cornet saved a match point defeating Camila Giorgi in the Katowice final to raise her ranking to No. 21 -- her highest rank since 2009. She also beat world No. 1 Serena before losing to Venus in the Dubai final in February. The 20-year-old Garcia, who owns the all-court skills that prompted Andy Murray to once tout her as a potential future No. 1, swept the singles and doubles championships in Bogotá, becoming the first woman since Serena at the 2012 London Olympics to sweep singles and doubles crowns at the same tournament.
The USA counters with a slumping Sloane Stephens, who has looked disengaged losing three of her last four matches since her run to the Indian Wells quarterfinals, No. 42 Madison Keys, No. 48 left-hander Varvara Lepchenko and No. 59 Christina McHale.
Pressure is the trickiest variable to consider when forecasting a match, and it becomes even more unpredictable given the youth at play here. Both U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez and her French counterpart, former Wimbledon winner Amelie Mauresmo, still travel the tour and understand the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. If she gets off to a fast start and plays with positive emotion, I can see Stephens snapping out of her mini-slump and stamping her game on this tie, but she hasn't shown the initiative or tenacity to grind out matches when her best tennis eludes her. When Keys is clicking, her massive serve is one of the game's most striking weapons, but the 19-year-old looked skittish in her Fed Cup debut in February. Current form favors France.
The Pick: France 3, USA 2