Fed Cup is like Davis Cup’s little sister, the sibling that struggles to be noticed, the one that suffers a minor identity crisis beyond its dedicated inner circle. It has shortened its name – in 1995, from Federation Cup – to reboot its image, and tried various formats over its 51-year life. This is semi-final weekend, in Brisbane and Ostrava, but a more significant event for immediate members of the tennis family than those beyond.
For Australia, regardless, it is been a long time coming. Fully 21 years, in fact, since a team that included Nicole Provis and Liz Smylie contested the 1993 final against Spain, and we must rewind to Evonne Goolagong Cawley’s day, 1974, for the most recent of our seven titles. This year, from the 95 countries entered, only Australia, Germany, Czech Republic and Italy remain.
Locally, there is little tennis of note between Januarys, and, despite the awkward timing, a healthy attendance is expected for the Easter hardcourt tie on Pat Rafter Arena. A host line-up headed by former US Open champion Sam Stosur, in-form Casey Dellacqua and teen star Ash Barty will meet a near-full-strength German squad led by world No. 7 Angelique Kerber, with only Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki remaining in the northern hemisphere for the switch to red clay.
”It’s great that tennis is again in the minds of the public, because a lot of people think the Australian Open finishes and tennis goes quiet for the rest of the calendar year,” says Australian captain Alicia Molik, noting the timely boost for the women’s game, in particular.
”I’m proud to be Australian to know we always have an exceptionally strong team represent our nation. I know Davis Cup, maybe the last 10 or 15 years has had some great results, but I feel like the women have really been leading the charge the last few years, particularly with rankings [and] tournament wins, and I’m really proud to be a part of the competition.”
On paper, the Germans are favoured to advance in this one, with Kerber clearly the highest-ranked, and the comeback from multiple injuries of former top-tenner Andrea Petkovic boosted by a recent title win in Charleston. Yet although Stosur has not passed the third round of a WTA tournament since January, world No. 53 Dellacqua reached the last 16 at the Australian Open and the quarters as a qualifier at Indian Wells, and has already logged three top 20 wins in 2014.
”I’ve had a lot of tennis, and I’ve beaten some really good players along the way throughout the year, so I feel really good,” said Dellacqua, who will play Kerber in an all-lefty second singles rubber, following Stosur v Petkovic, and was also named to partner Barty against Julia Goerges and Anna-Lena Groenefeld in Sunday’s doubles. ”Obviously I’m going to have some tough opponents, and obviously opponents that are ranked a lot higher than me, so it will be tough, but I’ve got to back myself and believe that I can do it.”
Stosur, meanwhile, maintains she has not become dispirited by her modest recent results, and nor does the player unsurpassed for Australian Fed Cup singles wins expect the magnitude of the 40-year drought to prove burdensome. ”Obviously, we know that it’s there and we would definitely love to be in a final, but I don’t necessarily think there’s any more pressure on us because of that fact.”
Petkovic spoke of Germany’s comparable 19-year gap between semis, and 22 since its last title, and of ”really trying to write a piece of history for our country. I know Australia is trying to do the same thing and I think it’s going to be a great head-to-head.” The odds should be even, said Petkovic, with any numerical superiority balanced by the home court, and crowd, and long journey to get here. ”Ranking-wise, on the paper, we are the better team, but in Fed Cup anything can happen, and I think just anyone who followed Davis Cup the past weekend saw that really Davis Cup and Fed Cup are competitions [with] their own rules, and ranking doesn’t matter at all.”
Molik is adamant her team can cause an upset, just as the 2012 version did on clay in Stuttgart in what was the 12th and most recent instalment of a rivalry that Australia leads 8-4. The captain is hoping the Germans remember Stosur’s dominance of the last one, vividly, and will remind Dellacqua – from whom a singles point could prove crucial – of her impressive winning record in a season in which she is at No. 26 overall. ”We’ve got the team to win,” says Molik. ”No doubt about that.”
Which, if it eventuates, would mean a November home final against the Czechs, or an away fixture against defending champion Italy, and Australia’s Fed Cup team would have achieved for the first time in four decades what the Davis Cup lads last managed in 2003. From a local perspective, a big moment for a little sister who could do with a little more attention. All things being, well, relative.