RIMINI, Italy — The 2013 tennis Fed Cup World Group gets under way today with the tournament missing marquee names, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova and with a late format tweak aimed at boosting the event’s appeal.
Both Williams and Sharapova featured in the 2012 Fed Cup, partly to meet Olympic Games qualifying criteria, but will not be involved when the United States tackle Italy and Russia welcome Japan this weekend.
Williams, who has played just six ties since 1999, has a back injury while Sharapova, whose Fed Cup record stretches to a meagre three appearances since her 2008 debut, was left out of the Russian squad.
Their absences have cut the number of players from the top 10 competing in the four World Group One ties to just three — No 7 Sara Errani of Italy, eighth-ranked Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic and No 9 Samantha Stosur of Australia.
In the absence of the Williams sisters, as well as Australian Open semi-finalist Sloane Stephens, the 17-time champions US will be led by world number 21 Varvara Lepchencko when they face Italy in Rimini.
Italy, with Errani and world number 16 Roberta Vinci likely to play singles and doubles, beat the US in the 2009 and 2010 finals. Even without Sharapova, Russia, the four-time winners, should be too strong for Japan in Moscow.
Maria Kirilenko, at 13, Ekaterina Makarova, the world number 20, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the 31st-ranked player and number 32 Elena Vesnina, are all higher up the WTA pecking order than Japan’s top singles player Ayumi Morita, the world 57.
2012 runners-up Serbia, who are likely to be without world number 14 and former French Open champion Ana Ivanovic with a shoulder injury, tackle Slovakia.