Fed Cup ties dominated by absent stars
Russia will play the Czech Republic in the final of the Fed Cup and the United States and France were relegated from the top tier for the first time on Sunday after World Group ties dominated by absent stars.
Russia will host the Czechs on Nov. 5-6 after completing a 5-0 rout of two-time defending champion Italy in Moscow. The Russians were heavily favored to win in the Russian capital as Italy was without top players Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta.
The Czechs beat Belgium in the deciding doubles for a 3-2 victory in Charleroi, Belgium. The Belgians couldn't make up for the absence of the injured Kim Clijsters and the retirement earlier this year of Justine Henin.
The Americans, the record 17-time champion but playing without Venus and Serena Williams, were relegated after going down 5-0 to Germany in Stuttgart.
France was also relegated after falling 4-1 to hosts Spain in Lleida.
Russia and Italy have dominated the Fed Cup since 2004, winning all seven titles between them. Russia is unbeaten at home in 10 ties since losing to France in the 2003 semifinals. The streak includes a win over Italy in the 2007 final.
Italy was missing Schiavone, the French Open champion withdrawing to concentrate on the clay-court season. Pennetta is sidelined with a shoulder injury.
Vera Zvonareva beat Roberta Vinci 6-4, 6-2 in the first reverse singles to give Russia an insurmountable 3-0 lead.
''I don't care about Schiavone and Pennetta,'' Vinci said afterward. ''This is the team we have. Right now I'm No. 1 for Italy and Sara (Errani) is No. 2.''
After the teams split the reverse singles on Sunday, Iveta Benesova and Barbora Zahlavova Strycova beat Yanina Wickmayer and Kirsten Flipkens 6-4, 6-4 to put the Czechs in their first final since they won the title as Czechoslovakia in 1988.
The Czechs had lost in the semifinals the previous two years.
Germany's decisive win came when Andrea Petkovic beat Melanie Oudin 6-2, 6-3 in the first of the reverse singles for an unbeatable 3-0 lead.
''I never won a clinching match before,'' Petkovic said. ''I believe that Germany belongs to the top group and I am really pleased that I won the point.
The Americans were Fed Cup runners-up in the last two years, losing both times to Italy, but could not overcome the higher-ranked Germans.
Watching from the stands in Porsche Arena was Venus Williams, who hasn't represented the U.S. in four years and was unavailable because of a hip injury. By appearing in Germany, Williams becomes eligible for the 2012 London Games. Players have to make themselves available for the Fed Cup to play in the Olympics.
Williams has been sidelined since the Australian Open. Serena Williams, who also hasn't played for the U.S. since 2007, has been sidelined since Wimbledon because of two operations on her foot and a blood clot in her lungs. In addition, the U.S. team lost Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who would have been its top-ranked payer, to a hip injury.
France started the day at 1-1 but lost both reverse singles before also dropping the meaningless doubles match. Spain's Lourdes Dominguez-Lino sealed her country's promotion to the top tier by defeating Pauline Parmentier 6-4, 6-4.
In other World Group playoffs, Ukraine beat Australia 3-2 and Serbia beat Slovakia 3-2.