The new format of the Fed Cup, adopting a similar style to the Davis Cup, will see more countries being able to compete at the highest level, but a spot in the Finals held in April is not easily earned — eight spots in Budapest are up for grabs during the qualifiers held a week after the Australian Open.
One intriguing clash will see 2017 finalist Belarus go up against 2016 semifinalist Netherlands, with both teams sending out their best possible line-ups. Belarus has reached the semifinals in two of three previous editions, while the Netherlands is on the other end of the spectrum having tasted defeat in their last four ties.
Belarus’ line-up: Sabalenka leads the battle
World number 13 Aryna Sabalenka has played every tie for Belarus since 2017, posing a 9-5 win-loss record in singles but going winless in four doubles rubbers. Once again, she is not missing an opportunity to represent her country as she looks to help Belarus book a hard-earned spot in the Fed Cup Finals.
She will be joined by two-time Major champion Victoria Azarenka, who is making her first public appearance this year after missing the entire Australian swing due to personal reasons. Currently ranked 54th in the world, the Belarusian is still a huge threat and should bring in a couple of valuable victories during the tie. (NOTE: Azarenka has withdrawn from the tie)
Even without Sabalenka and Azarenka, Belarus still has several reliable back-ups in Aliaksandra Sasnovich and Olga Govortsova. Govortsova finds herself back in the Fed Cup team roster for the first time after becoming a mother two years ago and has been on the comeback trail since. Sasnovich has been a phenomenal player for Belarus, competing in 20 ties since her debut in 2012 and amassing a win-loss record of 21-13.
Doubles specialist Lidziya Marozava will also be part of the team, having played a crucial role in several Fed Cup doubles matches previously.
Netherlands’ line-up: Bertens carries the country’s hope
The player with the best Fed Cup record in this tie is Kiki Bertens, as she makes her first appearance in the tournament since 2017. She is now a completely different player as compared to the last time she represented her country, having gone on to make her top-10 debut and establishing her talent.
World number 79 Arantxa Rus is the Netherlands’ second-highest ranked singles player but will face an uphill battle if she were to help her teammates pull off a major upset over any of the Belarusian top singles players. She is joined by the less experienced Lesley Pattinama Kerkhove, who is currently ranked 157th.
23-year-old Indy de Vroome has yet to make her debut for the team despite being nominated once previously, but it is unlikely that she will feature during the weekend as the Dutch captain is expected to rely on their top singles players instead.
Should the tie come down to a deciding rubber, doubles world number 14 Demi Schuurs is ready to come into action after not being able to compete in any live rubbers previously throughout her Fed Cup career. Schuurs and Bertens had partnered in WTA tournaments previously, claiming some success as well.
Prediction: Netherlands d. Belarus
With Sabalenka the only top-100 player for Belarus, it could be a difficult task for them to clinch a win over the Netherlands, who boasts two top-100 players and a top-20 doubles player. Considering this tie is played indoors on clay, it will be to the advantage of Bertens, the highest-ranked player in this tie.
Bertens would be favoured to clinch both her matches, including a potential blockbuster against rival Sabalenka on Saturday. If the tie goes down to the deciding doubles rubber, which is likely, Netherlands would have a bigger advantage with Schuurs raring to go.