Sunday, November 13, 2016

Hat trick!

For the third year in a row, and for the fifth in six years, the Czech Republic has won Fed Cup. And what a final it was. You knew it was going to be epic when the first rubber lasted three hours and 48 minutes and included the longest set ever played in Fed Cup history. Karolina Pliskova defeated Kiki Mladenovic 6-4, 3-6, 16-14 in what was a very high quality thriller.

Adding to the drama (always drama in Fed Cup), Mladenovic cramped badly in the final set, and saved a couple of match points to get to 9-all, even though she had use of only one leg. It ended a bit less dramatically, when the Frenchwoman was broken at love in the final game.

Not to worry--Caroline Garcia was up next, and she took care of Petra Kvitova, 7-6, 6-3, putting the former Fed Cup star into the zero column yet again. To make things worse, Kvitova had to withdraw from day 2 because of a stress fracture in her right foot.

Garcia, however, came back on day 2 and beat Pliskova, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 in what was pretty much a clinic in how beat the tall Czech. This was the Garcia we first noticed a few years ago. She makes an appearance sometimes, but not often enough. Her serve has improved a lot, and her aggression is notable. She just won the Fed Cup Heart Award, and nobody could argue with that. Her performance in this final was outstanding.

With France leading 2-1, Barbora Strycova faced off against Alize Cornet. Cornet should be a great Fed Cup player; she's very talented, likes to pull upsets, and she loves the big stage--and she entered with a dominating record (5-1) against Garcia.  But the one stage she can't handle is the Fed Cup stage. Today, she handled herself better, but it wasn't enough to push back the aggressive and explosive phenomenon that is Strycova. She beat Cornet 6-2, 7-6,  and tied the two countries at 2-all.

It seemed fitting that this amazing final would have to go to a fifth rubber. And you really couldn't have asked for more than a huge doubles match played between Pliskova/Strycova and Garcia/Mladenovic. Playing in France with most of the crowd behind them, the French Open champions had a very good chance to win. But Pliskova and Strycova were just too good. Their 7-5, 7-5 victory sealed the 2016 championship for their country.

If the first half of the final was all about Garcia (with much credit to Mladenovic for her beautiful performance, even while cramping), the second was all about Strycova. Many words--"feisty," "firecracker," "emotional"--have been used to describe Strycova, but none of them is sufficient. Barbora Strycova is a complex combination of no nonsense and high drama. She entertains us with her facial expressions, her fist-pumping (right at Pliskova after Pliskova hit a winner) and her sometimes officious behavior. But that's just the wrapping. Inside is a mature player who has been through a lot, who is more talented now than she was five years ago, and who understands what it takes to win.

A shout-out has to go to France's captain, Amelie Mauresmo, who has had many jobs--including tournament director and coach--but none seems to suit her as well as being Fed Cup captain. Her keen decision-making and her ability to motivate players got France to the final, and almost to the championship. During the final, the camera was frequently on her, as she did everything from massaging Mladenovic's leg to practically breathing fire into Garcia.

2017 will be interesting.

Many fans have requested that the Fed Cup final be changed so that the doubles rubber is the third one, as it is in Davis Cup play. I originally agreed with this idea, but now I'm not so sure. I kind of like having the doubles be the deciding rubber, if needed.

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