Sunday, April 17, 2016

Czech Republic and France to play Fed Cup final in November

It will be all red, white and blue in November when France meets defending champion Czech Republic to determine who will be the 2016 Fed Cup champion. And if this weekend's semifinals are any indication, both teams had better bring the very best they have to France.

Playing without Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova, the Czech team pulled off the win against Switzerland (playing without Belinda Bencic), but needed five rubbers to do it. Going in 1-1 today, the Czech team got some relief when Karolina Pliskova handily defeated Timea Bacsinszky in straight sets. But then Victorija Golubic, now the official Swiss Slayer, took out Barbora Strycova. Golubic lost the first set, but won the second in a tiebreak, and then had a fairly easy time of it against a frustrated Strycova.

Then it was time for doubles, and this time, Pliskova's partner was former French Open champion Lucie Hradecka. They faced Golubic (again!) and Martina Hingis, and beat them 6-2, 6-2--just like that.

The woman we will remember from this semifinal weekend is Golubic, who appeared to come out of nowhere, knock out Czech team leader Pliskova and Strycova, then suddenly find herself paired with Hingis in a final rubber. So great was Golubic's performance this weekend, it seemed almost "right" that Switzerland should go to the final, but the Czechs were just too strong in doubles. One can't help but wonder how much it affects the outcome to have Hingis sitting on the bench for two days and then suddenly having to go in and "save" the team.

The other semifinal also went to five rubbers. Tied at 1-1 today, France and The Netherlands played reverse singles rubbers today, and once again--surprise!--Kiki Bertens won hers. Bertens, who is now 15-1 in Fed Cup singles matches, defeated the other Kiki (Mladenovic) 7-5, 6-4. When Caroline Garcia was victorious in her must-win match against Arantxa Rus, a doubles rubber ensued. And what a match it was.

Charleston champions Garcia and Mladenovic faced Bertens and Richel Hogenkamp. The Dutch team fought its way to a first set victory, the French won the second set, and then the real drama began. In the fourth game of the final set, Mladenovic faced six break points on her serve. The French team saved them all, and went on to win that set 6-3. By the middle of the third set, the French crowd was going simply mad, urged on by a highly animated Mladenovic, who squeezed every drop of crowd support that was available.

Of interest--Kiki vs. Kiki: 1-1

Of course, other matches were being played, too. Belarus moved into the World Group for the first time in Fed Cup history by defeating Russia. Yes, Russia, the one-time Fed Cup giant that has left the World Group, at least for now. Also leaving the World Group was one-time Fed Cup giant Italy, whose team didn't really have a chance against the Spaniards, especially with Sara Errani having to withdraw because of a knee injury.

Any time Andrea Petkovic plays in Fed Cup competition, there's drama, and this weekend was no exception. Petko played for two hours and 49 minutes against Simona Halep, who defeated her. She was back out there today, this time competing against the always-maddening Monica Niculescu, who did little for the German's spirit by taking the first set 6-0. Both women served well, and Niculescu ended the two-hour, 37-minute match with a much better winner-unforced error ratio than Petko. But Petko won, 0-6, 7-6, 6-3, putting Germany into the World Group. Petkovic was able to seal the win after Angelique Kerber knocked Halep out in straight sets.

The USA, of course, went back to the World Group with its stunning defeat of Australia. Sam Stosur lost both of her singles rubbers, thus eliminating any speculation that she has become "more comfortable" competing on home soil.

In World Group II playoffs:
Belgium def. Serbia
Slovakia def. Canada
Chinese Taipei def. Poland
Ukraine def. Argentina

In the Belgium vs. Serbia tie, Aleks Krunic beat Kirsten Flipkens, and then lost to Yanina Wickmayer, who won the final set 8-6. Krunic led 6-1, 3-0, then served for the match at 5-4 in the second set, but Wickmayer's comeback was just too strong, and she wore Krunic down.

I love Fed Cup. I like the team competition, the excitement, and the inevitable rise of a player who is not only not a WTA star, but who may be relatively obscure in the tennis world. Several years ago, I watched a Fed Cup tie and was mesmerized by a young player who I thought might some day be Somebody. Her name was Petra Kvitova, and--while she has yet to become the Somebody I was expecting her to be--she is nevertheless quite an elite player on the tour.

Whether it's a Kvitova who goes on to become a tennis great, or a Kiki Bertens who goes on to be a Fed Cup great--or a Krunic or Golubic who is suddenly indespensable, the evolution is always thrilling.

One hopes that a healthy Petra, a healthy Lucie (Safarova) and a healthy Karo all show up in France for the final. But even if they don't all make an appearance, the Czech Republic has demonstrated that--like the Russian team when it was at its peak--it has enough depth to have an A team and a B team. And the B team, as we saw in February and this weekend, isn't too shabby.

Coach Amelie Mauresmo has Garcia and Mladenovic, who have become really good at pulling double duty in Fed Cup ties. The irony is that the French fighter, Alize Cornet, just can't seem to translate that fight--and her considerable skills--to a Fed Cup rubber. Maybe some day. In the meantime, I'm reminded of the time that Mauresmo, when she was still playing in Fed Cup and was asked about the closeness of the French team, responded that they were very close, like the Russian team, and that, like the Russians, they would all go out to eat together at a restaurant. "But," she deadpanned, "it's a smaller restaurant."

Maybe not so much now. Czech Republic, watch your back: French Flair may be coming to get you.

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