The Fed Cup semifinals kick off on Saturday as defending champion Czech Republic host a young French team looking for the upset, while Russia hosts last year's runner-up Germany. While those four nations vie for the finals, the Americans are relying on Serena Williams to get them back into World Group I. Here are the key storylines for a busy Fed Cup weekend.
World Group semifinals
Germany benches Andrea Petkovic and Angelique Kerber on Day 1: Coming off a strong week in Charleston, S.C., where Kerber won the title and Petkovic made the semifinals, Germany's top two players will sit out Saturday's singles ties. With Russia unable to field No. 2 Maria Sharapova due to injury, German captain Barbara Rittner has opted to rest her two jet-lagged players an extra day and play Sabine Lisicki and Julia Goerges instead. Goerges will play Svetlana Kuznetsova and Lisicki, coming off a great four weeks on hard courts in Indian Wells and Miami, will play Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
“They have had long weeks, successful weeks in the U.S. and I had two players who were fresh," Rittner said. "They have been here from Sunday and they had good practice sessions and we have a strong team." Lisicki has not played a singles match for Germany since 2012 and Goerges since 2013, but they have been good on clay and have winning records against their Russian opponents. Lisicki is is 5-5 in Fed Cup singles matches, with a 3-1 record on clay. She has won both her matches against Kuznetsova but this will be their first meeting on clay. Goerges is 4-5 in Fed Cup singles matches, with a 4-3 record on clay. She is 2-1 against Pavlyuchenkova and has won their two meetings on clay.
Despite all the numbers, this remains a big gamble for Germany. Kuznetsova has a proven ability to raise her game during Fed Cup and Pavlyuchenkova is more than capable of beating Goerges. If Russia gets a 2-0 lead after Day 1 the tie could come down to doubles, where the Russians have the edge.
France goes with youth against the Czech Republic: How do you say "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" in French? Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic rescued France from a 0-2 hole against Italy in the first round in February and Captain Amelie Mauresmo will stick with them against the defending champions. France's No. 1 Alize Cornet, who has had a forgettable start to the season, will sit out Day 1. The quick hard courts in Ostrava should feed into Mladenovic's game as she takes on Petra Kvitova on Saturday. Garcia will play Lucie Safarova, who got the nod ahead of Karolina Pliskova. Safarova has only lost one Fed Cup singles match on Czech soil.
Petra Kvitova returns to competition: The No. 4 told the BBC she skipped Indian Wells and Miami because she felt exhausted mentally and physically. After a few weeks without touching a racket she will jump back into competition in the pressure-packed environment of Fed Cup. The good news for the Czechs is that if Kvitova disappoints on Saturday they have the option of Pliskova, one of the hottest players of the first three months.
World Group Playoffs:
U.S. leans heavily on Serena Williams: How many matches will Serena have to play over two days? With Venus pulling out of the tie, the Americans were left scrambling to designate their No. 2 singles player. Captain Mary Joe Fernadez opted for No. 57 Lauren Davis, who beat Eugenie Bouchard last week on green clay in Charleston. Fernandez also has Alison Riske and Christina McHale as singles options. None of the younger Americans are favorites to win any of their singles matches against Italy, who are fielding a team that includes Sara Errani, Flavia Pennetta and Camila Giorgi.
Pennetta will sit out the tie on Saturday. Italy has opted for Giorgi against Serena, with Errani playing Davis. Sunday's reverse singles could see Serena play either Errani or Pennetta. If the teams split the singles matches and the tie comes down to a decisive fifth rubber, will we see Serena for a third time this weekend?
Martina Hingis returns to singles for Switzerland: Hingis laughed off the suggestion she would feature in singles this weekend for Switzerland, but sure enough, her name is on the scorecard. Hingis will play her first singles match since 2007 on Saturday when she takes on No. 9 Agnieszka Radwanska. Given how often Radwanska shot-making and court sense gets compared to Hingis, this is a must-watch match. Switzerland's No. 1 Timea Bacszinsky plays Urszula Radwanska.
Eugenie Bouchard tries to snap her slump for Canada: Bouchard made a last-minute audible late last week to join Canada in Montreal as they host a weak Romanian team. Romania is without its No. 1 Simona Halep, whose decision to skip the tie in favor of staying in Europe to train for the upcoming clay season was met with strong criticism from Ion Tiriac. The crafty Monica Niculescu is also not part of the team. Instead, Canada will need to get past No. 33 Irina Camelia Begu and No. 69 Alexandra Dulgheru. Given Bouchard's season so far, which includes three straight losses to players ranked outside the Top 40, it's hard to know what to expect for Canada this weekend.