MOSCOW, RUSSIA: Serbia’s Fed Cup by BNP Paribas team has been waiting many years for this weekend. For the first time ever, they will compete in the Fed Cup World Group semifinals in Moscow on Saturday and Sunday and, despite the Russians’ impressive record in the competition, many feel the next two days presents an excellent opportunity for a full-strength Serbian squad to make history by progressing to November’s final against either holders Czech Republic or Italy.
Nobody on the visiting team expects it to be easy, of course. The Russians have won the competition four times in the last decade and are a formidable force on home soil, but without world No. 2 Maria Sharapova and world No.10 Vera Zvonareva, opportunity knocks for the visitors who boast two former world No.1s - a rejuvenated Ana Ivanovic, the current world No.15, and world No.18 Jelena Jankovic who always relishes wearing Serbia’s colours.
The responsibility of trying to bank Russian singles victories falls on the shoulders of world No. 22 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and two-time Grand Slam champion and Fed Cup veteran Svetlana Kuznetsova, ranked five places below her. Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev has opted to nominate world No. 21 Maria Kirilenko only for Sunday’s doubles, alongside Elena Vesnina, despite being the highest ranked member of the home side.
Pavlyuchenkova will open the tie on Saturday against Jankovic, who with 25 victories holds the record for Fed Cup singles wins for her country, before Kuznetsova and Ivanovic face off in the second rubber. Pavlyuchenkova and Ivanovic will begin Sunday’s schedule, followed by Kuznetsova against Jankovic and a potentially decisive doubles - providing the first four rubbers are shared - between Kirilenko and Vesnina and Serbian youngsters Bojana Jovanovski and Aleksandra Krunic.
Serbian captain, Dejan Vranes, said he will take nothing for granted against a nation Serbia has failed to beat in their three previous meetings, but that his team had worked hard during their five days in the Russian capital and had quickly adapted to the indoor clay inside the 5,150-capacity Megasport Arena.
“We’re really excited, nervous also, but I think it’s positive,” Vranes said at the draw ceremony which was held on Friday outside one of Moscow’s largest shopping malls. “We’ve used the last five days to prepare and the girls have adapted to the surface and I can say we’re ready.
“For all of us and for our country it means a lot. It’s the first time [in the semifinals] after many years. We started this journey five years ago in the Europe/Africa Group 1 in Plovdiv and after five years we’re finally in the semifinals. Our plan is just to fight until the last point - we’ll see what happens.”
Vranes must delighted with the form of his No.1, Ivanovic, who has risen seven places since the end of 2011 to sit just inside the world’s top 15. The 24-year-old former Roland Garros champion reached the fourth round of the Australian Open and the semifinals in Indian Wells recently and said she couldn’t be happier with Serbia’s preparations.
“The atmosphere in the team is great and we’re all looking forward to the opportunity,” she said. “We have a tough task - they have lots of good players in their team - and obviously playing on home courts for them is a little bit of an advantage, but we feel like we’re in a very good position to take them on.”
Teammate Jankovic cut a determined figure during the draw ceremony and outlined a clear objective for the Serbs during the weekend. “Our goal is to reach the final,” she said. “I really believe in my team. I think we’re a very strong team and I think we can go all the way.”
In the Russians’ favour, however, is home advantage, the support of the home crowd, the experience of Kuznetsova, and in Pavlyuchenkova a player who seems to burst into life when playing Fed Cup tennis. Kuznetsova holds an impressive 18-7 win-loss record in singles play in the competition, while 20-year-old Pavlyuchenkova has won her last five Fed Cup rubbers, her most recent defeat in Russian colours coming back in 2009.
“It’s totally different,” said Pavlyuchenkova, when asked why the format inspires her. “Different atmosphere and emotions as well - and it’s always nice to see your team supporting you and the home crowd will hopefully be loud and help us too.
“It’s the first time for me to open a Fed Cup tie, to start first. Normally I always play on the second day, but it will be good experience for me and a great challenge too.”
The full draw is listed below:
R1: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS) v Jelena Jankovic (SRB)
R2: Svetlana Kuznetsova (RUS) v Ana Ivanovic (SRB)
R3: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS) v Ana Ivanovic (SRB)
R4: Svetlana Kuznetsova (RUS) v Jelena Jankovic (SRB)
R5: Maria Kirilenko / Elena Vesnina (RUS) v Bojana Jovanovski / Aleksandra Krunic (SRB)
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS) - 20/04/2012
Svetlana Kuznetsova (RUS) - 20/04/2012
Ana Ivanovic (SRB) - 20/04/2012
Jelena Jankovic (SRB) - 20/04/2012
Captain Dejan Vranes (SRB) - 20/04/2012