By Jason Hovet
PRAGUE (Reuters) – The United States will send out three debutants to defend their Fed Cup crown against a powerhouse Czech Republic side that suddenly looks vulnerable after being hit with injury and illness.
If the two most successful nations in Fed Cup history, the United States, winners of 18 titles, and the Czechs, champions in five of the last seven years, were to field their best, fans could look forward to a marquee final of the highest order.
The U.S., however, will be without Serena and Venus Williams, holders of a combined 30 grand slam singles titles, world number six Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, semi-finalist at both Roland Garros and Flushing Meadows, in Prague.
The Czechs had announced a power-packed lineup led by world number seven and twice Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and eighth-ranked Karolina Pliskova for the Nov. 10-11 tie, but could be without both.
Pliskova has already been ruled out with a calf injury while Kvitova will at least miss the opening day’s action on Saturday due to sickness.
Kvitova, whose training has been limited this week due to a fever, could still play on Sunday.
Kathy Rinaldi, who took over as U.S. captain in 2017, has named world number 36 Danielle Collins, 52nd ranked Sofia Kenin, number 63 Alison Riske and Czech-born doubles specialist Nicole Melichar to keep her unbeaten Fed Cup record intact.
Riske was a member of the U.S. team that won the Fed Cup title over Belarus last year, but this is a first Fed Cup nomination for Collins, Kenin and Melichar.
Petr Pala, the most successful captain in Fed Cup history having led the Czechs to five titles, has replaced Pliskova with Fed Cup rookie Barbora Krejcikova, who will join Katerina Siniakova, Barbora Strycova and Kvitova, if fit.
Krejcikova and Siniakova are the number one ranked doubles players, winning the French Open and Wimbledon doubles titles this year.
“In sports, any given Sunday anything can happen,” said Melichar, who was born in the Czech Republic but raised in America. “We just go out and give it our best.”
“Are we (U.S.) the favorites on paper? No. But I think we can do it.”
History is certainly on the U.S. side.
In 12 head-to-head meetings, the U.S. have won 10, including the last eight.
But the Czechs enjoy home court advantage and will ride a 10-tie winning streak into the final, having not lost a home tie since falling to the U.S. 3-2 in the 2009 World Group semi-finals.
Three of their five most recent titles have been celebrated at the O2 Arena in Prague.
“I am glad that we are back in Prague in this arena to play the final,” said Pala.
“The pressure is there, has always been there and will be there. We will see on the weekend.”
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Jan Harvey)