Another fascinating year of tennis action is soon to draw to a close but there is one last stop for the elite of the WTA as Russia and the Czech Republic meet to contest the final of the Fed Cup. Having faced off in the final as recently as 2011, it is sure to be a riveting affair with the Czechs determined to hold onto their crown.
An electric World Group sees both reach the final
For the last ten years, Russia and the Czechs have almost monopolised the Fed Cup with both nation's dominance sparking a fierce rivalry. Winners on seven out of the last ten ocassions, and having met each other in an astonishing final in 2011, back in January it was little surprise when both were touted as potential winners.
The Czechs, having swept to victory in the previous year by defeating Germany in the final, and Russia, four times winners and with Maria Sharapova back in the team, made light work of their opening round opponents. In Poland, Russia dismantled a Polish team containing the Radwanska sisters to the loss of only one set, which included a 6-1 7-5 victory for Sharapova over Agnieszka Radwanska, for a 4-0 win.
Meanwhile the defending champions wasted little time in banashing a depleted Canadian team as they also won by the same convincing scoreline. Even without Petra Kvitova, and Canada without Eugenie Bouchard, the Czechs didn't lose a single set as they left Quebec with a semi final place in the bag.
The semis would prove to be a far tougher contest for both as they were pushed by France and Germany; but the Czechs were the far more convincing of the two. Racing into an unassailable lead at 3-0, which saw French captain Amelie Mauresmo controversially throwing Kristina Mladenovic into the second rubber over Alize Cornet, the damage was already done by the time Mladenovic and partner Pauline Parmentier won the doubles rubber.
However, Russia's match against Germany went all the way to the deciding rubber, as the teams played out a pulsating tie which almost saw the Germans recover from 0-2 down. This time without the injured Maria Sharapova, the Russians relied upon the experienced Svetlana Kuznetsova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
Brushing aside an in-form Julia Georges and then a fragile Sabine Lisicki, Russia looked to be in a great position. But the Germans came back with a vengance, as the new pairing of Andrea Petkovic and Angelique Kerber demolished Kuznetsova and Pavlyuchenkova in the second round of singles matches.
So down to the decider the match would go, but backed by a huge crowd in Sochi, the Russians were able to stem the tide and eventually secured the victory and yet another appearance in the final of the Fed Cup.
Two strong teams head to Prague
Whilst they may have both reached the finals relying upon the depth of their tennis selection, both teams head for the final fully fit. With Maria Sharapova back for the Russians, in her first ever Fed Cup final, and Kvitova and Lucie Safarova both in for the Czechs, it is safe to say that both teams are determined to win.
Czech Republic (Hosts)
Petra Kvitova (World Ranking 6)
|Maria Sharapova (4)|
|Lucie Safarova (9)||Ekaterina Makarova (23)|
|Karolina Pliskova (11)||Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (28)|
|Barbora Strycova (41 - Doubles Ranking 28)||Elena Vesnina (111 - Doubles Ranking 8)|
In last year's final, Kvitova and Safarova won both of their matches and have yet to taste defeat in the singles during 2015, meanwhile in the Russian team, Sharapova has only lost once in six Fed Cup matches during her career but Ekaterina Makarova is making her first appearance since 2014.
Back together! #TeamRussia pic.twitter.com/DZsNpZzDi4— Maria Sharapova (@MariaSharapova) November 11, 2015
Speaking in the build up to the final, the Russians have spiced things up by continually playing down their chances and moving all of the pressure onto their hosts. 'We are going into this final as underdogs.' Sharapova told the press in Prague, 'We expect a stadium full of Czechs – I’m sure there will be some Russian flags flying around – but there will be more Czechs in the stadium than Russians. Our full concentration will be on what is ahead of us and not on what’s going on around us.'
Meanwhile the Czechs have spoken of their confidence and the benefit of having the crowd on side. 'I think we are a pretty good team and we know we have confidence from that,' Peta Kvitova said, but she would not be drawn into discussion about who are the favourites.
How will they line-up?
With both teams consisting of a variety of players, the coaches will have some tough decisions to make in the build up. Namely, for the Russians, just who will play the opening two rubbers?
Being their number one player and dominating both Safarova and Kvitova in the head-to-head, it is highly likely that Maria Sharapova will fill one of those spots; with the aforementioned Czechs their two single spots. But who will take the second?
As the higher ranked player one would expect Ekaterina Makarova will be chosen over Pavlyuchenkova, but should she? Makarov hasn't played at all in this year's competition and has shown poor form in the last six months, tumbling out of the top ten - and interestingly she lost to Pavlychenkova in their last meeting.
But what of the lesser ranked player? One of the heroes of Sochi, Pavlyuchenkova has suddenly found form of late, reaching the finals in Linz and Moscow, winning in Linz.
With not much to choose between either player, perhaps it may come down to a tactical switch from Anastasia Myskina, who may favour the lefty in Makarova. One thing to consider is that Pavlychenkova has a perfect record in the doubles this year, whilst she lost in the semi finals in one of her singles ties.
'We will see on Friday who is going to play. Physically everybody is
ready,' commented Myskina, herself a two-time champion.
But time will tell who lines up when the two giants of Fed Cup tennis take to the court and whoever does play, we are sure to be in for a terrific weekend of tennis.
Who will win?
The smart money would be on the Czechs, backed by a huge crowd and with the very real chance of retaining the title. Having not lost at home since 2009 in a defeat to the US, having the tie in Prague could prove telling.
However, the Russians are a team of experience and know how, and although they remain the underdogs, no one would put a win in Prague past them.