BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA: Argentina and Japan have long enjoyed diplomatic and cultural ties, in spite of the distance between the two nations, as anyone who's visited Buenos Aires' Japanese Garden, or seen Japanese couples frequently finishing among the top places in the annual World Tango Championships will be fully aware.
It was little surprise, then, to find a friendly atmosphere in the town of Pilar, just outside Buenos Aires, for this weekend's World Group II first round Fed Cup by BNP Paribas tie between the two nations at the Pilará Tennis Club.
Japan is without its No. 3 - and world No. 97 - veteran Kimiko Date-Krumm, and Japanese No. 2 and world No. 75 Ayumi Morita is also not involved here, but even so the visitors still have the advantage on paper. Misaki Doi (world No. 102) and Fed Cup debutant Risa Ozaki (world No. 170) are both higher ranked than Argentines María Irigoyen, Florencia Molinero and Catalina Pella, ranked world Nos. 173, 195 and 297 respectively. Like Ozaki, this is Pella's first Fed Cup call-up.
All the same, Argentina is optimistic of its chances. In Paula Ormaechea, the Argentine No. 1 and world No. 60, the Argentines have the highest-ranked singles player in the tie (Japanese No. 1 Kurumi Nara is five places below Ormaechea in the world rankings), and the hosts will hope she can repeat her heroics of 2013, when she won both her singles rubbers in the World Group II play-off against Great Britain, including a three-set win over then-world No. 38 Laura Robson.
“If she is going to be a good player, she has to play and keep going... everything,” says Argentina team captain María José Gaidano of Ormaechea.
For her part, if Ormaechea is feeling any pressure to repeat that performance, she's playing it with a poker face.
“No,” she immediately responds when asked whether she felt any pressure. “I think it's a completely different tie, they're completely different players, so it's like every Fed Cup. I mean, of course you always want to win at home, with the crowd and everything, but it's different… [Japan] are really tough, they have very good players, so we'll give our best and try to win.”
“Sometimes I put a lot of pressure on myself,” she later admits, “but I'll try to relax a little bit. As I say, they're really tough – anything can happen.”
Ormaechea is the second-youngest of Argentina's Fed Cup squad, but shoulders the responsibility of being the nation's No. 1 well. Catalina Pella is the youngest member, having turned 21 last Friday, at the end of a week in which she also celebrated receiving her first Fed Cup call-up. She's unlikely to play, but insists she won't be hoping for any injuries to her team-mates to allow her to get on court. ”On my team, no. I'm just hoping for Japan to get hurt!” she joked with a smile.
Aside from Ormaechea's ability, the other major factor in Argentina's favour is the surface, with Japan's players used to much quicker surfaces than the clay courts Argentines grow up hitting on. Kurumi Nara, who will open the tie against María Irigoyen on Saturday morning, isn't phased.
“Last year I didn't play against Spain [when Japan were beaten 4-0 on clay to drop out of the World Group], but I had a good French Open season last year, and I've had a good practice in the last few days on clay courts, so I think I'm ready,” says Nara.
“We have a clay court in the National Centre,” adds team captain Yuka Kaneko, “so we've played a lot [on that].”
Of course, it wouldn't be Argentina playing at home if mention weren't also made of the support from the stands.
“The rankings for us are not a problem,” says Gaidano. “Because we are on clay, so this is not our problem… we have a lot of friends coming so they are going to be [sticking up] for us, and they are going to help. The Davis Cup fans are louder, but tomorrow will still be a good atmosphere.”
The full draw is listed below:
R1: Maria Irigoyen (ARG) v Kurumi Nara (JPN)
R2: Paula Ormaechea (ARG) v Misaki Doi (JPN)
R3: Paula Ormaechea (ARG) v Kurumi Nara (JPN)
R4: Maria Irigoyen (ARG) v Misaki Doi (JPN)
R5: Maria Irigoyen/Paula Ormaechea (ARG) v Shuko Aoyama/Risa Ozaki (JPN)
Captain Maria-Jose Gaidano (ARG) - 07/02/2014
Catalina Pella (ARG) - 07/02/2014
Paula Ormaechea (ARG) - 07/02/2014
Kurumi Nara (JPN) - 07/02/2014