Fed Cup 2020: Serena Williams, Sofia Kenin, Belinda Bencic lead USA and Switzerland to new Fed Cup Final
GB, Japan, Canada lose out on 12-team showdown in Budapest
One season after the Davis Cup introduced its new format, in which 18 teams—12 qualifiers, the four previous semi-finalists, and two wild cards—competed in round-robin groups to reach the knock-out stages, the Fed Cup has transitioned to a similar format.
The women’s revamped inter-nation tournament will climax in a six-day 12-team jamboree in Budapest in April, with four of those teams were already guaranteed: the two finalists from 2019, France and Australia, host Hungary, and wild card Czech Republic. The other eight would be determined by this weekend’s home-and-away qualifying ties between the next 16 ranked nations.
USA survive strong comeback by Latvia
On paper, the USA, playing on the hard, indoor courts of Everett, on the north-western coast of the States, fielded one of the strongest teams, boasting the new Australian Open champion, No7 Sofia Kenin, alongside current No9 and 23-time Major champion, Serena Williams.
Sure enough, the two Americans got the better of a relatively strong Latvian team, with singles wins on the first day over former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko and Anastasija Sevastova, ranked 40 and 41 respectively. That the home team could also draw on multiple Major doubles champion Bethanie Mattek Sands stood them in pretty good stead, and it was just as well.
For both Williams and Kenin lost their reverse singles on Saturday, with the former ending a 14-match unbeaten run in Fed Cup. Williams was certainly made to work very hard over the entire tie after her shock third-round loss at the Australian Open to No27 seed Qiang Wang. It took the American two tie-breaks to get past Ostapenko, and then Sevastova denied Williams her 15th straight win in a two-and-a-half-hour battle, 7-6, 3-6, 7-6.
So Mattek Sands was called upon to partner Kenin in the deciding doubles, and that proved to be the key against the sterling but exhausting efforts of Ostapenko and Sevastova, 6-4, 6-0.
Theirs was the last match in the last tie on Saturday, making the USA the last team to seal a place in the Finals in April. Other members of the WTA top 10 were not so lucky.
No8-ranked Kiki Bertens played her part in The Hague for the Netherlands, beating both No13 Aryna Sabalenka and Aliaksandra Sasnovich of Belarus, but the two away players joined forces to make the tie a cliff-hanger in the concluding doubles rubber, eventually beating Bertens and Demi Schuurs in a final-set tie-breaker.
The 31-year-old Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro, playing in her last season before retirement, scored some emotional moments in front of a home crowd, winning both her singles matches on her favourite clay to lead the five-time champions Spain to the Finals.
But it was compatriot Sara Sorribes Tormo, age 23 and ranked just 78, who provided perhaps the shock of the weekend by beating former No1 and two-time Major champion, Naomi Osaka, in straight sets on opening Friday. The Japanese super-star was expected to play again on Saturday, but Japan changed their nomination, and Suarez Navarro instead beat Kurumi Nara, 6-1, 6-3.
The top-ranked woman in the qualifiers was Belinda Bencic, up to a career-high No5 this week, and against a Canada without the singles input of Bianca Andreescu or Eugenie Bouchard. Bencic and fellow 22-year-old Swiss, Jil Teichmann, playing on home soil in Biel, got the necessary three singles wins, though it was Teichmann who won both her rubbers. But it was more than enough to carry Switzerland to Budapest.
Also advancing to Budapest were four-time champions Russia, who beat home-team Romania, 3-2, thanks to victory in the deciding doubles rubber. Tied at two wins apiece, the duo of 21-year-old Russians, Anna Blinkova and Anna Kalinskaya, beat Jaqueline Cristian and Elena-Gabriela Ruse, 6-3, 6-2, to halt the campaign of the 2019 semi-finalists.
Two-time Fed Cup champions Germany impressed all weekend, going unbeaten against home team Brazil. Laura Siegemund clinched the tie with a 6-1, 6-2 victory over Gabriela Ce, to complete a 4-0 result without dropping a set throughout.
2001 Fed Cup champions Belgium also advanced with straight-set singles wins over Kazakhstan from Elise Mertens and Kirsten Flipkens, winning the tie 3-1.
GB put up strong fight, but lose to Slovakia
Great Britain’s campaign was always going to be a tough one. They were into the World Group for the first time since 1996 after beating Kazakhstan in a play-off last April, but were missing GB’s top player, No14 Johanna Konta, and Katie Boulter.
That they played away and on clay in Slovakia only made the test greater, and by the end of the first day, Heather Watson and Harriet Dart had lost both singles rubbers, though Dart came close to squaring the tie in a three-hour three-set loss to Viktoria Kuzmova.
However, come Saturday, Watson kept the tie alive with a dominant victory over Rebecca Sramkova, following the withdrawal of Kuzmova with illness.
But 23-year-old Dart then had to take on Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, whose proven ability took her to 26 in the ranks and two titles in 2015 at barely 20 years old. Nor did the Slovak’s current 199 ranking reflect the fact that she had missed the entire 2019 season post-Wimbledon. Dart, though, had her chances, but was able to convert only one in 10 break points, and Schmiedlova ensured Slovakia’s place in the Finals, 7-5, 6-3.
GB will now join the play-offs in April with fellow losing nations Brazil, Canada, Japan, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Netherlands and Romania, against winning nations from the regional Group I ties that include Argentina, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Serbia and Ukraine.
Line-up for Fed Cup Final, Budapest, 14-19 April
The 12 nations will compete in four groups of three, with the four group winners contesting the semis before the final on Sunday 19 April.
Draws for will be made in Budapest on Tuesday 11 February. Play-off draws will take place on the same day.
Australia [2019 finalist]
Czech Republic [wild card]
France [2019 finalist]