Hawaii no-go as Czechs start Fed Cup defence

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Paris: The Czech Republic begin their bid for a fourth successive Fed Cup title this weekend but in eight World Group ties, only two of the world’s top 10 players will take part.
Both of those will feature in Ostrava with world number three Karolina Pliskova leading Czech hopes of a sixth Fed Cup in seven years and 11th overall against a Spanish squad led by Garbine Muguruza, the seventh-ranked French Open champion.
But in Hawaii, the 17-time champions United States will be missing world number one Serena Williams as well as the injured Madison Keys, the ninth-ranked player, against Germany who are without Angelique Kerber, the second highest-ranked player in the world.
In World Group II, top 10 players Simona Halep, Dominika Cibulkova and Svetlana Kuznetsova are missing for Romania, Slovakia and Russia respectively.
The Czechs have not lost a Fed Cup tie in almost four years while Spain, five-time winners, haven’t made the semifinals since 2008. Their chances have not been helped by a stomach injury to national number two Carla Suarez Navarro which means that world 70 Laura Arruabarrena will likely feature as the second singles player.
In stark contrast, the Czechs can boast a four-woman team who are all ranked in the top 50 and the squad does not even include two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova who is recovering after being confronted by a knife-wielding intruder at her home in December.
The United States begin their bid for a first semifinal since 2010 in Maui with a new captain in place, Kathy Rinaldi replacing Mary Joe Fernandez.
Without the Williams sisters as well as the convalescing Keys, the United States will be led by world number 20 Coco Vandeweghe, fresh from making the Australian Open semifinals.
Germany’s top singles hope will be Laura Siegemund, the world 38 who has yet to play a Fed Cup tie, after Kerber opted not to travel to Hawaii ahead of her return to the tour in Qatar next week.
“Obviously we have a tough opponent in Germany but it’s different in the Fed Cup because it’s a team event,” said doubles world number one and Australian Open champion Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the US.
In Geneva, France, runners-up in 2016, tackle Switzerland in a tie which will provide Belinda Bencic with mixed emotions.
When these two nations last played in 2014, Bencic was just 16 and defeated Alize Cornet and Virginie Razzano before France saved themselves with victory in the deciding doubles rubber.
Three years on, the injury-plagued Bencic has slumped to 81 in the world.
The 16th-ranked Timea Bacsinszky will lead Switzerland’s singles challenge. — AFP