MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA: Australia versus Ukraine in the World Group Play-offs of Fed Cup by BNP Paribas is a replay of 2010. Same opponent, same round, but almost everything else is different.
Australia, playing at home on clay for the first time, is without its top claycourter and No.1 Samantha Stosur. The Ukraine is minus the Bondarenko sisters, Alona and Kateryna.
World No.29 Jarmila Groth, born in Slovakia and a naturalised Aussie for just 18 months, will spearhead the home team, serving it up in the first rubber against Ukrainian No. 2 Olga Savchuk. Another new Aussie, ex-Russian Anastasia Rodionova, takes on Ukraine’s No.1, Lesia Tsurenko, the world No. 136.
From debutante to spearhead
For Groth, the rise from debutante to spearhead has taken all of 10 weeks. In February at Hobart, where she’d won the WTA title weeks earlier, the 24-year-old upset Italy’s lion-hearted Francesca Schiavone. Though the heroics didn’t extend to defeating Italian No. 2 Flavia Pennetta, Groth, who notched the fourth-round finishes at both the French Open at Wimbledon in her breakout year of 2010, starts a heavy favourite against world No.147 Savchuk.
Rodionova is the only player this tie who took part in Australia’s 5-0 win in Kharkov a year ago. The 28-year-old’s flinty debut - roaring back from 06 to triumph 75 in the third against Ukraine’s No.1 Alona Bondarenko - anchored the Aussie win. "But it’s a different story now - they have a completely different team and we also have a new team," says the world No.74.
A native of Tambov but resident in Australia since 2005, Rodionova could again bring the x-factor for the Aussies. "Well, I know all of [the Ukrainian team], and they know me," she demurs. "So I don’t know if it’s a secret."
Raised on clay, domiciled in Melbourne, Rodionova is hoping to capitalise on the home-crowd support. "It’s really exciting to play in front of your hometown. I’m gonna have a lot of friends watching and supporting."
The 21-year-old Tsurenko made her Fed Cup debut in February against Sweden in the World Group II. She lost both her singles matches and will be keen to register her first win for Ukraine. Match-hardened after several weeks in Australia, she reached the final of an ITF event in Queensland, going down to Sally Peers.
The debutante of this tie, Peers has been selected for the doubles with Sophie Ferguson. "Sally’s got a lot to live up to on her debut," joked Aussie captain David Taylor. "Anastasia was 60 1-0 down, unbelievable effort in an away tie, hostile crowd. Then look at Jarka. Wow, beat No.4 in the world in her debut. Yeah, over to Sally!"
Ukraine’s home away from home
For the perky Peers, it doesn’t get much better than a Fed Cup debut in your hometown. The 20-year-old grew up in the tennis belt of Melbourne’s leafy eastern suburbs, not far from the Glen Iris Valley club where the tie is being played. "I do just live down the road. I remember playing here in the under-12s or something. Mum and dad and a lot of the family will come out."
Ferguson beat both Ukraine’s singles players in the qualifying at Roland Garros 2010, though that may be of little help in the doubles on Sunday against Yuliya Beygelzimer and Viktoriya Kutuzova. At 27, the dark-haired Beygelzimer is the veteran of the group, a winner of 17 rubbers from 19 Fed Cup ties since 2000, and owner of no less than 25 ITF doubles titles. She was part of Ukraine’s 4-1 defeat of Australia on the Gold Coast in 2007, winning the doubles rubber with Kateryna Bondarenko over Alicia Molik and Rennae Stubbs.
Kutuzova, 22, is no stranger to Melbourne, which she lists as her favourite city. Back in 2003, she was Australian Open junior runner-up.
Australia and Ukraine are 1-all in Fed Cup, with both scoring their wins away from home. Given that history, a home tie for Australia is no gimme, even with far higher-ranked players. "A lot of strange things happen in Davis Cup and Fed Cup," affirms captain Taylor. "Of course, we’re wary of that."
In this ‘same time next year’ tie, plenty of unknowns lurk.
The full draw for the weekend is listed below.
R1: Jarmila Groth (AUS) v Olga Savchuk (UKR)
R2: Anastasia Rodionova (AUS) v Lesia Tsurenko (UKR)
R3: Jarmila Groth (AUS) v Lesia Tsurenko (UKR)
R4: Anastasia Rodionova (AUS) v Olga Savchuk (UKR)
R5: Sally Peers / Sophie Ferguson (AUS) v Yuliya Beygelzimer / Viktoria Kutuzova (UKR)