U.S. sorely misses Venus, Serena

The U.S. was no match for Belgium at the Fed Cup without Venus and Serena, Matt Cronin says.

U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez will be more than pleased to have the Williams sisters back on her team in April.

Unfortunately, Fernandez could have used them this weekend in Belgium, and the sisters' upcoming spring appearance will only be for a relegation tie, not exactly a proper showcase for two women who have combined for 20 Grand Slam singles title.

After reaching the final with much the same squad that was beaten 4-1 by Belgium this weekend, Fernandez hoped that the likes of Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Melanie Oudin had gained enough experience and confidence to possibly pull an upset in Antwerp. This time around, however, the U.S. faced an extremely strong opponent in Kim Clijsters-led Belgium and lost with only one set in its pocket in the first three tie-deciding matches.

Reigning U.S. and Australian Open champion Clijsters is a far better player than anyone Fernandez had at her disposal. It showed when she wiped the floor with Oudin on Saturday 6-0, 6-4 and then, after an erratic first set, stepped on Mattek-Sands 6-7 (10), 6-2, 6-1 to clinch the tie.

In the opening tie, former U.S. Open semifinalist and 26th-ranked Yanina Wickmayer had overcome Mattek-Sands 6-1, 7-6 (6). The aggressive all-courter Mattek-Sands was in both contests but was simply outclassed talent-wise. Now, for the first time since 2002 and only the third time ever, the U.S. has lost a first-round tie.

“I think the games were a lot tighter than the score appeared, especially in the third, but she is Kim Clijsters,” said Mattek-Sands, who registered 76 unforced errors in the contest.

So now it will be up to the injured Williams sisters to get themselves healthy and lead the 17-time champion U.S. in its World Group Playoff in April. The opponent is still undetermined, as is the location and surface, but that doesn't matter. This time around, Venus and Serena will make themselves available to play or they will be disqualified from Olympic competition in 2012, a consequence they do not want as contesting the London Olympics is a stated goal for both of them.

Unfortunately for the sport, Venus and Serena never faced off with Clijsters or the just retired Justine Henin in Fed Cup, even though the two nations have played each other six times since 2000. An occasional lack of interest and injuries have taken their toll on a key and often thrilling international competition.

Every other World Group tie featured standout players this past weekend with 20-year-old Czech sensation Petra Kvitova leading her nation to a 3-2 victory over rival Slovakia in Bratislava. Kvitova bested Dominika Cibulkova 6-2, 6-3 on Saturday and clinched the win on Sunday with a 6-4, 6-2 win over Hantuchova.

Kvitova, who reached the 2010 Wimbledon semifinals and the 2011 Australian Open quarters, has won nine of her past 11 matches and looks mature enough to put the weight of her nation on her shoulders. But the Czechs must travel to Belgium for April's semifinal, which surely will be an extremely difficult tie if Clijsters participates.

Stosur comes up short

While the U.S. could partly shrug off the loss by saying it was without its two top players, what can Australia say after it went down to two-time defending champion Italy at home in Hobart? Not much, other than that its leading player, Sam Stosur, must step up in critical situations.

As good as Italy's Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta have been in Fed Cup, the Aussies should have at least been able to bring the contest to a fifth and deciding rubber. Instead, Stosur lost two long three-setters to Pennetta and Schiavone and on the final day, Pennetta took down Jarmila Groth 6-3, 6-2 to clinch it, the same Groth who had upset Schiavone of the opening day to give Australia its only point in the 4-1 loss.

While the colorful French Open champion Schiavone grabs more headlines than her teammate does, it has been the super solid Pennetta who has been the rock of Italy's squad, as she's now won 10 consecutive matches in the competition and 20 overall.

Aussie Fed Cup coach David Taylor, who is also Stosur's personal coach, would love that type of record out of his charge, who ended her much anticipated Aussie summer with four questionable losses, including a beat down at the hands of Kvitova in Melbourne. As lethal as Stosur can be, her hard-court game is lacking in refinement and she has yet to prove that she can stand up to the pressure of being her nation's go-to player.

''Sam (is) a top-five player in the world and wasn't able to score a point for us,'' Taylor said. ''I'm sure she's disappointed like everyone, but she obviously needed to step up in the crucial moments and probably stamp her authority on the match a little more.''

Russia rallies to take down France

Italy will face a familiar foe in the semifinals when it goes up against four-time champion Russia, which came back from an 0-2 deficit against France in Moscow behind Svetlana Kuznetsova and surprising teenager Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

After a stunning opening day when France's Alize Cornet had shocked two-time Grand Slam champion Kuznetsova and veteran Virginie Razzano gained revenge for her Aussie Open loss to Maria Sharapova by upending the Russian in straight sets, Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev, who is renowned for his lineup changes, pulled a big switch by inserting the 19-year-old Pavlyuchenkova in Sharapova's spot. She came through, hitting through Cornet 3-6, 6-3, 6-2.

After that, Kuznetsova relaxed and spun Razzano around 6-4, 6-4. She then teamed with Pavlyuchenkova to clinch the tie with a 7-6, 6-0 victory over a despondent Cornet and Julie Coin. Tarpischev not only pulled former No. 1 Sharapova out — who is said to have trouble competing in her homeland — but he also kept another No. 1 on the bench for the doubles, the struggling Dinara Safina.

The captain proved to be spot on, and now he'll go about the complicated business of fielding a strong team for the April 16-17 tie. While like Italy, deep Russia has strong all-around players, it may not be easy for Tarpischev to recruit the likes of Kuznetsova and Sharapova again, while Schiavone and Pennetta almost never miss a tie.

Kuznetsova and Sharapova have fulfilled their 2012 Olympic qualification duties, and neither may want to play again in Moscow right before the meat of the European clay-court season begins, especially Sharapova, who is scheduled to play on the green clay in Charleston in early April and may not want to switch surfaces again if, as expected, Tarpischev selects a fast indoor court to face Italy.

But at least Tarpischev now knows that his teenager is capable of great performances and if he can get another young and talented player — such as Alisa Kleybanova — back in the fold, he may not need his Grand Slam champions to pull off the win.

“There was lot of pressure on me,” Pavlyuchenkova said. “It's different to play for team and you are thinking about playing for your country, but my team and the fans really pushed me through.”