Excitement is building in Eilat, Israel's Red Sea holiday resort city, as the players start to arrive for next week's Fed Cup by BNP Paribas Europe/Africa Zone Group I tournament, taking place on 1-4 February.
As many as 20 players ranked in the Top 100 representing some of the 15 competing nations will converge on the Municipal Tennis Club for the round-robin competition, and if last year's corresponding event held at the same venue is anything to go by, the 2012 version will be another cracker with some top-quality matches for the enthusiastic local spectators, and many who fly down from the centre of the country, to savour.
Poland's world No. 8 Agnieszka Radwanska will return to try to gain promotion to World Group II after closely missing out last year when her team were edged by Belarus in a play-off tie that included a memorable encounter between Radwanska and Victoria Azarenka. The Belarus player prevailed in a close tussle that was probably the best women's tennis match ever seen in Israel, one that observers considered worthy of a Grand Slam semifinal.
When presenting his team for the competition, Israeli captain Lior Mor said there would be no easy matches for home favourite Shahar Peer (37) and up-and-coming Julia Glushko (208), who rose to the occasion last year by winning three out of her four singles matches. Israel have been drawn in Pool C with Netherlands, Great Britain and Portugal.
"We have a very difficult pool, each of our opponents has very formidable players and strength in depth and all the encounters will be extremely challenging, but it's not easy to predict the outcome of any of the ties as there are no clear favouries. They could go either way," Mor said at Israel's press conference on Wednesday, a week before the start of the competition.
Israel's first Pool C opponents will be Netherlands, led by Arantxa Rus (80) and Michaella Krajicek (93). Great Britain, with new captain Judy Murray, the mother of world No. 4 Andy, in charge, will field veterans Elena Baltacha (51) and Anne Keothavong (72), who should be well supported by youngsters Heather Watson (92) and Laura Robson (133), both former junior Grand Slam champions. They take on Portugal on Wednesday's first day of competition.
After her appointment in December Murray said: "It is a huge honour for me to represent my country in this way and the role represents a very exciting challenge." When Mor heard that Britain would face Israel, he wished Murray much success, "but not against us".
Pool A, is the only three-team round-robin group which makes each tie result even more crucial for advancement to Saturday's promotion round. Estonia are without their leading player Kaia Kanepi (37), which leaves the door open for Austria and Bulgaria. The Austrians are led by Tamira Pasek (42), while the Bulgarians will hope Tsvetana Pironkova (46), a Wimbledon semifinalist in 2010, can see them through.
Pool B includes Sweden, led by Johanna Larsson (59); Greece, with veteran Eleni Daniilidou (90); Hungary and newly promoted Bosnia-Herzegovina. Pool D's encounters should also present some formidable contests, with Radwanska (8) playing alongside sister Urszula (105) for Poland; Romania, with Monica Niculescu (30); Croatia, whose top player is Petra Martic (50), and Luxembourg with 37-year-old Anne Kremer, who will increase her Fed Cup record for ties played that currently stands at 63 ties.
In lauding the standard of the competition, Shlomo Tzoref, a former Israeli Davis Cup captain, likened the Eilat event to a top WTA tournament: "I have been to many, many tournaments all over the world but it's not every day that you get to see such a large number of high-calibre players all in the same place at once. If you compare it to the tour, it's like a $600,000 WTA tournament," he said.