2020 Fed Cup qualifiers preview: Nations load up on star talent
MUCH like the Davis Cup last year, the Fed Cup in 2020 has undergone a revamp with a World Cup-style tournament planned for Budapest in April. In it, 12 nations will compete for the title, with last year’s grand finalists, France and Australia automatically qualifying, as well as host nation Hungary, and wildcard Czech Republic (highest ranked nation not from last year’s finalists). Those four teams will be joined by eight other nations which will be decided by the qualifiers taking place next weekend.
 USA vs. Latvia
USA: Serena Williams, Sofia Kenin, Alison Riske, Coco Gauff, Bethanie Mattek-Sands
Latvia: Anastasija Sevastova, Jelena Ostapenko, Diana Marcinkevica, Daniela Vismane
A full-strength American outfit will not show any mercy on its Latvian opponents in the Fed Cup qualifiers, with the unfortunate visitors running into the number one seed. The United States lost to Australia last year, but were without both Williams and Riske who have nominated to play, while Gauff could unbelievably make her Fed Cup debut before her 16th birthday. The 12th placed Latvians are not out of place at this level, with two top 50 players who will contest the singles and not make it easy for the home side. Last year they lost to Germany before sweeping Slovakia, but have struggled given they realistically have the four players to pick compared to United States’ smorgasbord of talent. Unfortunately for Sevastova and Ostapenko, a sweep is in the works in this event, with Williams and Kenin likely to take the singles, though Riske and Gauff both impressed at the Australian Open, so expect Gauff if any to pick up a singles if it is a dead rubber by Day 2. Ostapenko will play all three as the only star doubles player – unless Latvia somehow go 2-0 up – while Mattek-Sands will potentially team up with Riske in the doubles. It is an embarrassment of riches for the home team and expect them to potentially win 5-0 in this head-to-head.
Netherlands vs.  Belarus
Netherlands: Kiki Bertens, Arantxa Rus, Lesley Kerkhove, Indy De Vroome, Demi Schuurs
Belarus: Aryna Sabalenka, Victoria Azarenka, Aliaksandra Sasnovich, Olga Govortsova, Lidziya Marozava
Netherlands had a 2019 to forget, swept by both Japan and Canada, and the Dutch will want to put in a much better effort here. The 19th ranked nation is perilously close to dropping out of the World Group, but at least have Bertens back for this year. Belarus swept Germany in 2019, before falling to a strong Australian side, 3-2. All eyes will be on the clash between Bertens and Sabalenka – expected to be Day 2 – which could potentially decide the clash. For Netherlands to win, they will need Bertens to win both singles, with the second option being the 93rd ranked Rus, who will struggle against Sabalenka and veteran Grand Slam winner, Azarenka. Azarenka and Sabalenka might monopolise the two days as the top two singles and doubles players, though expect Sasnovich – who is in good form herself – to potentially get a role. Schuurs is ranked 14th overall in doubles and will team with Kerkhove or potentially Bertens depending on fitness, though if they do go 2-0 up, one of De Vroome or Kerkhove would be expected to take that spot as the fresh player. This match should go the way of Belarus, but it will be close if Bertens is on song, so expect a 3-2 result to the visiting side and number two seeds, though it could be 4-1 if Sabalenka fulfils the promise she has shown at times.
 Romania vs. Russia
Romania: Ana Bogdan, Irina Maria Bara, Elena Gabriela Ruse, Jaqueline Adina Cristian, Raluca Olaru
Russia: Ekaterina Alexandrova, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Veronika Kudermetova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Anna Kalinskaya
Romania stunned top seeds Czech Republic last year with an upset win in the first round of the competition, before going down to France 2-3 in the semi-finals. Unfortunately for the Romanians, the team that won through to a semi-final is completely different to the one that will host the strongest Russian side in a number of years. Russia had a remarkable run last year, winning through from Ground 1 to the World Group after sweeping Italy 4-0 – its third sweep of last year. Simona Halep has chosen to withdraw from the tie citing the upcoming 2020 Olympics as her main focus away from the individual events, which means the Romanians have to rely on 98th ranked Bogdan and 160th ranked Bara to get through the singles. Their doubles combination is also completely different with Bara potentially playing with Olaru in the doubles, allowing Ruse to take over the singles. It is hard not to see Russia completely sweeping Romania in this clash, with four top 60 players, including top 30 singles players Alexandrova and Pavlyuchenkova. They should win all four singles, though with it done and dusted after three, expected either Kudermetova or more likely Kalinsaka to get a gig on the second day, with the pair also potentially playing the doubles tie. Russia 5-0 is one of the more comfortable assumptions in this qualifying round.
Brazil vs.  Germany
Brazil: Gabriela Ce, Telina Pereira, Carolina Meligeni Rodrigues Alves, Laura Pigossi, Luisa Stefani
Germany: Laura Siegemund, Tatjana Maria, Anna-Lena Friedsam, Antonia Lottner
Without a top 50 player on show, the Brazil-Germany clash is not one of the more intriguing clashes, with Germany’s Siegemund ranked 72nd in the world and heading into the tie as the top ranked player. She and 87th Maria should make light work of Ce and Pereira who are both ranked outside the top 200. Stefani is ranked in the top 70 for doubles and might lead the home nation to a match win in the final rubber, though Friesam is ranked in the top 50 and will give up stiff competition. The South American nation made the qualifiers after winning through Group 1, but falling to Slovakia meant it was not an automatic selection. Germany will miss a number of key players from last season with Julia Goerges the top ranked player opting not to play, along with Mona Barthel and Andrea Pekovic who were other winning singles players. Instead the fourth and fifth choices will lead the charge, though it should not be a problem, earning the spot in the World Group after a 3-1 win over Latvia in the playoffs last year. Germany to win 4-1 at least in this tie.
 Spain vs. Japan
Spain: Carla Suarez Navarro, Sara Sorribes Tormo, Aliona Bolsova Zadoinov, Lara Arruabarrena, Georgina Garcia-Perez
Japan: Naomi Osaka, Misaki Doi, Kurumi Nara, Ena Shibahara, Shuko Aoyama
Spain has been a nation down on its past which saw it net five Fed Cup titles in the 90s, but returns to the World Group after back-to-back wins over Japan and Belgium last year. Ironically now Spain must do it all against Japan, except now the Japanese have a fairly handy inclusion in world number four, Osaka. Against a retiring Suarez Navarro in her final Fed Cup, and a top 100 improving Sorribes Tormo, Osaka should have no troubles in her two singles, though Spain could triumph in the others against Doi. Japan has a strong doubles pairing of Shibahara and Aoyama which could prove important, while Arruabarrena and Garcia-Perez are expected to front up for the doubles for Spain. The home court advantage could prove advantageous, especially given Osaka’s strength on hard court, though Japan should turn the tables on their European opponents and win 3-2 in a close one.
 Switzerland vs. Canada
Switzerland: Belinda Bencic, Jil Teichmann, Viktorija Golubic, Stefanie Voegele, Timea Bacsinszky
Canada: Bianca Andreescu, Leylah Annie Fernandez, Eugenie Bouchard, Gabriela Dabrowski
Switzerland come into this clash having rolled Italy last year in World Group 2 before going down to top seeds, United States in the playoffs. Unfortunately for the North American nation, Canada ran into top seeds Czech Republic last year and was swept 4-0. Having not played since last year, Andreescu will try and carry the hopes of Canada on her shoulders with an upset win over Switzerland. The world number six is still only 19-years-old and her clash with 22-year-old Bencic should be a must-watch match. Bencic has had an up-and-down year already in 2020, but having at least had runs on the board, she should have the advantage and lead her side in the singles. Teichmann is a developing talent who should have no troubles against the Canadian second singles player, while Bouchard is a better player than here 212th ranking gives her a fighting chance to cause an upset. Dabrowski is ranked eighth in the doubles, and could give Canada the edge if Andreescu can win both her singles, though chances are it will go the way of the home team sixth seeds, with Switzerland winning 3-2.
 Belgium vs. Kazakhstan
Belgium: Elise Mertens, Kirsten Flipkens, Ysaline Bonaventure, Greet Minnen
Kazakhstan: Yulia Putintseva, Zarina Diyas, Anna Danilina, Yaroslava Shvedova
Seventh seed Belgium will head into its home clash against Kazakhstan as warm favourites given top player, Mertens has nominated to play, while 20-year-old young gun, Elena Rybakina will not take the court for the visitors. Belgium faced a tough draw last year, losing to Spain and then France. For Kazakhstan, they moved through Group 1 with three consecutive wins including one over China, before falling to Great Britain 3-1 in the World Group playoff. In this clash expect Mertens to triumph in both her singles to give Belgium the edge, though both Putintseva and the in-form Diyas will start favourite against Flipkens in the second singles. Belgium could well team-up Mertens and Flipkens in the doubles or opt for 22-year-old Minnen. They are likely to claim the win there and lead Belgium to at least a 3-2 victory, if not 4-1.
Slovakia vs.  Great Britain
Slovakia: Viktoria Kuzmova, Jana Cepelova, Rebecca Sramkova, Magdalena Rybarikova, Anna Karolina Schmiedlova
Great Britain: Heather Watson, Harriet Dart, Naiktha Bains, Katie Swan, Emma Raducanu
An understrength Great Britain will travel to Slovakia with a much greater challenge on its hands than first thought. Its two preferred singles players, Johanna Konta (resting) and Katie Boulder (injured) will not take part, leaving Watson and Dart as the preferred options. Last year Great Britain earned a spot in the World Group courtesy of five consecutive wins, defeating Slovenia, Greece, Hungary, Serbia and Kazakhstan, dropping just one singles match as Konta and Boulter combined for an 11-1 record in 2019. Dart and Swan was the preferred doubles combination, while the 17-year-old Raducanu has also earned a call-up to the squad along with 22-year-old Bains. With four of the five players 23-years-old or younger, it is certainly a changing of the guard for the British side. Slovakia on the other had have just two in that age bracket, led by top 100 player, Kuzmova. Cepelova will likely play the second singles, with Kuzmova teaming up with Schmiedlova or Sramkova in the doubles. Despite having the key outs, Great Britain would still fancy its chances and could well get up 3-2, though this is likely the closest match of all and Slovakia could surprise the eighth seeds.