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One might have thought that Henin’s broken finger would have given Team Estonia some hope, for they’ll be confronting a Belgian team without the seven-time Grand Slam champion as its #2 singles player. But 13th-ranked Yanina Wickmayer (pictured above) represents the insurance policy of anyone’s dreams; the Belgian cup runneth over indeed. Although that tie is virtually a foregone conclusion, some of the others are not; we’ll preview the World Group semifinal and World Group playoff ties straight ahead:

USA-Russia: One might imagine that Russia would prevail comfortably in the absence of both Williams sisters, but the crafty Shamil Tarpischev enters the weekend with a sadly depleted squad of Dementieva, Makarova, and Kudryavtseva. Since Dementieva is the only top-30 player on either team, one can expect her to win both of her matches. (Despite Oudin’s win over her at the US Open last year, Dementieva reversed that upset at the Paris Indoors this February and boasts an outstanding 20-5 record in Fed Cup, including wins over Clijsters and Mauresmo.) Therefore, Team USA’s task will be to win the remaining three matches, which is a less imposing task than it sounds on paper. Oudin should be able to defeat Kudryavtseva on Saturday, and the Americans have a distinct advantage in the doubles with world #1 Liezel Huber, so the decisive moment in this tie becomes the fourth singles rubber. This match is scheduled to pit Mattek against Kudryavtseva, offering both of these relatively anonymous players a rare opportunity to play the heroine. It’s almost impossible to discern how such a match would develop, and one might favor the veteran with the home-court advantage over the emotionally volatile Fed Cup novice. On the other hand, Tarpischev has an uncanny knack for extracting excellence from unexpected sources at crucial moments. Pick: Russia, 60-40.

Italy-Czech Republic: Like the Americans, the Italians possess the comfort blanket of a nearly guaranteed doubles win in the fifth rubber should they need it; the team of Errani and Vinci has lost a total of zero Fed Cup matches. But it’s unlikely that the defending champions will need it, for they possess almost every imaginable advantage over the visitors, from the surface to mental strength to experience to recent form. Regrouping from a dismal North American campaign, Pennetta won the Marbella title two weeks ago, while Schiavone emphatically seized her third career title in Barcelona last weekend. Dangerous but streaky shotmakers, neither Safarova nor Hradecka can maintain the consistency necessary to outlast the tenacious Italians on clay in front of a raucous Roman audience. If all players perform to their potential, the Italian team should win the first three rubbers rather routinely and book their tickets to either the U.S. or Russia for the November final. Pick: Italy, 80-20.

Belgium-Estonia: In order to reach Belgium, the Estonian team took a ferry to Stockholm before driving the remaining distance (nearly 1,000 miles) through Sweden, Denmark, and Germany. Unless Henin’s broken finger proves contagious, Kanepi & Co. will retrace their steps empty-handed. Pick: Belgium, 90-10.

Ukraine-Australia: Fresh off her the biggest title of her career in Charleston, Stosur aims to collect all three wins that Australia will need to reclaim a position in the World Group. Expect her to partner Stubbs in the doubles if necessary, but the comeback artist Alicia Molik can render that match irrelevant with a win over Koryttseva in the reverse singles. With K-Bond absent and A-Bond slumping, the Ukrainians have few weapons that can threaten the Aussies. Pick: Australia, 75-25.

Germany-France: This matchup might be the least predictable and most compelling (in a wacky way) among all of the weekend’s ties. A Lisicki-less Germany seeks leadership from Petkovic–who should rise to the occasion–yet also needs support from Tatiana Malek and Julia Goerges–who might not. We’re still trying to deduce why the Germans chose clay for the surface, which will blunt Petkovic’s blows without severely hindering the opposition. Across the net stands Fed Cup enigma France, which generally displays the level of sturdiness associated with a ripe Camembert. Behind a slumping, eccentric firecracker making her Fed Cup debut (Rezai), captain Nicolas Escude has mustered a player who has lost all eight of her Fed Cup matches (Cornet) and a player who has fallen in the qualifying rounds of five tournaments already this year (Pauline Parmentier). Julie Coin actually might be the emotional anchor of this bateau. A recipe for intrigue? Definitely. A recipe for victory? Not sure. Pick: Germany, 51-49.

Serbia-Slovakia: Which absentee will be more sorely missed, Slovakia’s Cibulkova (groin injury) or Serbia’s Ivanovic, who wisely chose not to revisit the scene of February’s humiliation against Russia? Although Cibulkova has been the better player of the two, the visitors enjoy substantially more depth and call upon the still-raw but certainly capable Magdalena Rybarikova., whereas the home team must lean almost entirely upon Jankovic to secure three wins. Hampered by a sore wrist, the Indian Wells champion recently lost in Charleston to Hantuchova, whom she’ll encounter again in Belgrade. Against Russia, she won both of her singles matches but proved unable to compensate for a lackluster partner (sorry, Ana!) in the doubles. Even if the wrist pain allows her to participate, it’s reasonable to suspect that the same scenario might unfold here. Pick: Slovakia, 65-35.

***

We’ll close this preview with a pair of relatively modest suggestions that might improve this sagging team competition for both spectators and participants. First, reschedule the doubles match to the third rubber, as in Davis Cup; its current position as the final rubber renders it either utterly irrelevant (when the four singles are not split) or excessively important (all the eggs are in its basket). By contrast, the third position would assure it a modest degree of significance as a potential swing match in the center of the weekend but not at its climax. The second suggestion also stands for Davis Cup, which shares with Fed Cup a draw system that positions the two #1s in the first reverse singles and the two #2s in the second reverse singles. Does it seem logical that the closest ties should be decided by the second-in-commands on both teams? (This structure may in part be responsible for the bizarre sequences of events that so often define both competitions.) If you’re an unbiased spectator looking for drama, would you want to see a 2-2 deadlock climax with Jovanovski-Rybarikova…or with Jankovic-Hantuchova? If you’re a team captain or a national tennis federation representative, would you want Alla Kudryavtseva holding your flag with everything on the line…or Elena Dementieva?

Or, better yet, of course…

Does anyone remember whom Maria defeated in her Fed Cup debut? Hint: she’s retired now.

We’ll be back shortly with an ATP Rome preview, unless everyone of consequence follows the example of Del Potro, Davydenko, Roddick, and Gonzalez. The city has a splashy new stadium, but will anyone come play in it? At any rate, we’ll keep your cup filled with tennis over the next few days! :)

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