This weekend sees the opening round of the Federation Cup and unfortunately for the tournament, the weakest field of players in years. In newly crowned Australian Open Champion Maria Sharapova there is a controversial but much needed top ten player to liven up the competitions’ star-starved first round fixtures.
Defending champions Russia travel to Israel in what is the standout battle of the four ties. Israel are flying high on confidence after winning their last ten ties and are hardly a team of minnows with the likes of Shahar Peer. Nevertheless it is unlikely that the World Group debutants will cause much of an upset against a team boasting the talents of four top 100 players. Whether fellow top ten player Anna Chakvetadze (who was somewhat less than complimentary of teammate and semi-compatriot Sharapova), world number 16 Dinara Safina or Elena Vesnina (number 53) will play in complete harmony and to the very best of their ability will be an interesting notion. Barring a complete and utter breakdown of relations however, there is no other winner than Russia here.
In the other ties it is the lack of big names that is causing a stir. USA who host Germany will be without the firepower of either Williams sibling. The Americans, who have won a record 17 titles in the past – but none since 2000 – do still have strength. Comeback mum Lindsay Davenport, despite looking rusty against Sharapova in Australia is still the best player on show, she is joined by veteran Lisa Raymond and two competition debutants in Laura Granville and Ashley Harkleroad. The Germans are also sporting newcomers in an inexperienced squad. Anna-Lena Groenefeld is both their best and most seasoned campaigner. If she is playing to her best and Davenport – the heart of the home side – falters then a much closer contest will be in store.
China are the favourites in their home tie against a much-weakened French side. The 1997 and 2003 champions are without their top three players Marion Bartoli, Tatiana Golovin and Amelie Mauresmo. Whether an in-form Virginie Razzano can carry the team to victory over a Chinese side which includes the dangerous world number 32 Li Na and two time Grand Slam doubles champions Yan Zi and Zheng Jie is questionable.
Lastly, 2006 champions and last year’s finalists Italy will play host to five times winners Spain. The visitors have a proud cup history bit have not reached a final since their 2002 loss to Slovakia and will be under-nourished with only Annabell Media Garrigues representing top 30 talent. The Italians have the ever-consistent Francesca Schiavone and Tathiana Garbin plus the talented Flavia Pennetta. If the Italians continue their good Fed Cup form then this will be their match.