SEVILLE, SPAIN: World No. 17 Carla Suarez Navarro will kick start Spain’s bid for a place in the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas semifinal when she takes on Czech Republic’s Barbora Zahlavova Strycova in Saturday’s opening rubber.
The hosts’ hopes of advancing to the final four for the first time in six years took a considerable boost during Friday’s draw ceremony when referee Andreas Egli confirmed the absence of world No. 28 Lucie Safarova from the Czech singles line-up.
The 27-year-old, who is hoping to be fit to play doubles if called upon, joined teammate Petra Kvitova in the sick wing after coming down with an illness upon arriving in Seville earlier in the week.
The absence of two top players would leave many nations digging deep into the rankings for potential alternatives, but, such is the strength and depth of the Czech talent pool, captain Petr Pala had two ready-made replacements to call upon.
Leading the seven-time champions out this weekend will be Klara Zakopalova. The world No. 34, who takes on Spanish youngster Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor in Saturday’s second rubber, will be contesting her first Fed Cup tie since 2006, while teammate Zahlavova Strycova, who goes up against Suarez Navarro, boasts a 5-1 Fed Cup singles record on clay.
Speaking after the draw, which took place in the magnificent Ayuntamiento de Sevilla in the heart of the city, Zakopalova said it will be a “big change” not having Safarova and Kvitova competing.
“Often when someone gets sick teams don’t have other players,” she said. “But we have a lot of great players so it’s a big advantage for us. We have a strong team and I hope we can do it even without them.”
Spain lead the series between the two nations 2-1, but it was Czech Republic that emerged victorious the last time the two sides met in 2009. Pala was at the helm for that 4-1 victory on carpet in Brno, but the Czech captain expects things to be a little closer this weekend.
“I’m a little disappointed [about losing Safarova],” said Pala. “The temperature was low at the beginning of the week and unfortunately it cost us her. But we still have a great team and I think it is a very even tie.
“I even expect it to go to the deciding doubles.”
If the tie is in fact deadlocked at 2-2 on the final day, Silvia Soler-Espinosa and Lara Arruabarrena will battle Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Safarova – if fit – in the decisive doubles rubber.
There were no such nomination worries for Spanish captain Conchita Martinez, who has her two top players – Suarez Navarro and Torro-Flor – at her disposal.
Martinez heaped praise upon her top player, Suarez Navarro, who enjoyed a standout year in 2013, finishing a season ranked inside the top 20 for the first time in her career.
“She’s had a really, really good year,” said Martinez. “She’s been very stable and has had good results so it’s always nice to have a player like that [leading your team].”
Spain has a relatively youthful look going into their tie against an experienced Czech side, who have won the title in two of the past three years. Their average age of 23 appears inexperienced when compared with the Czech’s average age of 28, but the Spanish players have a captain with a wealth of experience to tap into if needs be.
“You know, you always try to help them with your experience,” said Martinez, who has contested 53 Fed Cup ties during her career.
“Obviously I have played many Fed Cups and, you know, sometimes things were a first for me too. So whoever is inexperienced you try to help because they’re going to be the future. Like Lara [Arruabarrena] and Maria-Teresa, they’re both 21, and they are going to be the future. So with a little bit of experience with Silvia and Carla we have a good balance.”
The talk in the build up to the tie surrounded both sides’ ability to adapt to the slow, high-bouncing red clay after a month of hard-court tennis, but both teams were upbeat about their respective practices this week, despite the adverse weather conditions.
While the Spaniards are at home on the clay – both literally and figuratively – the Czechs last win on the dirt came almost seven years ago when they defeated Slovakia in a World Group II clash.
Does that give the Spanish confidence?
“We know that they like to pay on hard courts and fast surfaces,” said Martinez. “But we’re going to try and take advantage of playing at home with our crowds and on our surface.”
For Pala, the challenge is to lead his team to a sixth successive semifinal. For Martinez, it’s to reach a first since 2008.
The action begins at 1100 GMT on Saturday.
The full draw is listed below:
R1: Carla Suarez Navvaro (ESP) v Barbora Zahlavova Strycova (CZE)
R2: Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor (ESP) v Klara Zakopalova (CZE)
R3: Carla Suarez Navarro (ESP) v Klara Zakopalova (CZE)
R4: Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor (ESP) v Barbora Zahlavova Strycova (CZE)
R5: Lara Arruabarrena/Silvia Soler-Espinosa (ESP) v Andrea Hlavackova/Lucie Safarova (CZE)