Sunday, November 11, 2018

They're....back! Czech Republic wins 2018 Fed Cup championship




What do you do when you have no Petra Kvitova? No Lucie Safarova? No Karolina Pliskova? If you're Captain Petr Pala, you realize how lucky you are to still have Barbora Stycova, then you realize that you have the world's number 1 doubles team, and then you just let the Czech nature take its course. For the Czech nature (different from, but related to, the nature of the Fighting Italian) is such that whoever makes up the team can usually find a way to win.

And while this particular Fed Cup final will likely be remembered for Katerina Siniakova's having discovered a leadership role, credit must also be given to Strycova, who had to fight hard against the USA's Sonya Kenin in the opening rubber. That rubber, which took over two and a half hours to play, marked the first time that Strycova had ever come back from a first set loss to win a singles rubber in Fed Cup competition. It was also Strycova's last Fed Cup, so she went out--as she does everything--in style.

Kenin, playing for defending champion Team USA, was making her Fed Cup debut, and though she lost both of her rubbers, she performed as well as I expected her to, which was quite well. Kenin was there to win, and once she'd finished giving Strycova headaches, she moved on to Siniakova. The opening rubber (and, as it turned out, the only rubber) on Sunday lasted three hours and 44 minutes, the longest match of 2018. (We could say that they were playing on Schiavone-Kuznetsova time.) During that match, Kenin had to deal with a hamstring injury. Having lost the first set and down 4-5 in the second, the 19-year-old found a way to drag the rubber to a third set.




In the third set, which featured more treatment for Kenin's leg, Siniakova took control and went up 4-1. But Kenin, who just refused to give up, took advantage of her opponent's nerves, turned on the aggression, and won five games in a row. At 5-4, 30-0, she was two points from winning the rubber. She double-faulted, then went up 40-15. But Siniakova, who--just a few moments before, looked as though she were mentally exhausted--saved both match points. Something clicked for the Czech player (maybe something about being a Czech player?), and she suddenly polished her strategy, while her opponent, obviously hurting, began to fade away.

Siniakova broke, then went down 0-40--and somehow held for 6-5. That game, in fact, was a microcosm of "Siniakova plays Fed Cup." She just kept going to pieces, then pulling herself back together. Kenin, meanwhile, had a game point to force a tiebreak, but that went away when she slammed a backhand into the net. Then she hit one long, and it was match point for the Czech Republic. Siniakova wasn't able to convert that one, but she did convert on her second one, defeating Kenin 7-5, 5-7, 7-5.

Kenin's service stats were significantly better than Siniakova's, as was her net play. Had she not been injured, there might have been a fourth rubber. As it was, playing that long with an injury only served to intensify what was going on between Kenin and her Czech opponent. In the winners-unforced errors (and bless Fed Cup for being the only venue that provides a tally of forced errors) ratio for the match, Siniakova went 24/43, and Kenin had 42/76. Throughout the weekend, Kenin spent 6 hours and 27 minutes playing two rubbers, which could be a Fed Cup record.




Siniakova is already number 1 in the world in doubles. She's also a respectable 31 in the world in singles, and what she did this weekend could very well give her the kind of confidence boost that could make her ranking number rise in 2019. Fed Cup success isn't always the boost a player needs on the tour, but often, it's just that (see Kiki Bertens).

This is the Czech Republic's sixth Fed Cup championship in eight years. Also, Czechoslovakia won Fed Cup five times.

Sitting in the stands throughout the final were Petra Kvitova, who was too ill to play, and Lucie Safarova, who has just announced that she will retire in January. Both of them had much to do do with the many championships won by their country (as did the absent, and injured, Karolina Pliskova). And let's not forget Captain Pala, a champion among coaches, who has been there for all of the Czech Republic's victories.

Prior to Sunday's play, the Fed Cup Commitment Award was presented to both Safarova and Helena Sukova. Between them, they played in 75 Fed Cup ties, and won seven titles. Sukova, who was recently (and finally) inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, holds the record for most Fed Cup wins by a Czech player--57.


Saturday, November 10, 2018

No Petra, no Karo, no problem




Petra Kvitova is ill, Karolina Pliskova is injured, and Lucie Safarova--once a stalwart of the Czech Republic's Fed Cup team--is soon retiring from the sport. But, as I wrote on Wednesday, the Czech team has so much depth, it doesn't usually matter if their top players are not on the court.

Today, the defending champions of Team USA learned that the hard way. In a well-played and dramatic (as only Fed Cup matches can be) match played between the USA's Sonya Kenin and the Czech Republic's Barbora Strycova, Strycova prevailed, 6-7, 6-1, 6-4. It was Kenin's Fed Cup debut, and Strycova's final Fed Cup competition. To add to the drama, this was the first time that Strycova had ever come from a set down to win a Fed Cup singles rubber. It took her two hours and 43 minutes.

That's a lot of drama!

It's sad to realize that this is Strycova's last Fed Cup event, not only because she has been such a star for the team (especially in doubles), but because she's one of the most enjoyable players to watch on the entire tour. (And of course, there's the whole matter of her glorious persona.) It's good news, however, that Kenin has entered the Fed Cup world, a place where--in my opinion--she belongs. The 19-year-old has a game that combines both grinding and aggression, and it's hard to imagine her career going any way but up.




In today's second rubber, a member of the world number 1 doubles team showed her skills in singles. Katerina Siniakova defeated the USA's Alison Riske 6-3, 7-6, to put the Czech team up 2-0. Riske played a cleaner game than Siniakova, but the Czech played the big points when she needed to, and she rolled over her opponent in the tiebreak.

If Kvitova is feeling better, she'll play in one of tomorrow's singles rubbers. The Czech Republic is now one rubber away from winning its sixth Fed Cup championship (eleventh, if we count the wins of Czechoslovakia).

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Defending champion USA takes on Czech Republic in Fed Cup final




Many of us have noted, over the past several years, that the Czech Republic has so many great Fed Cup players, it doesn't really have an "A" and a "B" team. It's more like an "A+" team and maybe an "A" team and then a "B+" team. That theory will be put to the test this weekend when the Czech team takes on defending champion USA on an indoor hard court in Prague.

The five-time champions (actually, ten-time--the team also won as Czechoslovakia) will be missing two of its top players--Lucie Safarova and Karolina Pliskova. The good news is that Petra Kvitova will lead the team, but--the Barking Czech has been off her game lately, and there's a question as to whether she can bring Scary Petra to Prague. On the other hand, Kvitova won all four of her Fed Cup rubbers this year, and dropped only one set, so there's that.

But that doesn't mean that the Czech Republic will show up with a weak team--the Czech Republic doesn't have a weak team. Joining Kvitova will be Barbora Strycova, Katerina Sinaiakova and Barbora Krejcikova.

That's a pretty impressive group. Kvitova, of course, can be lethal, and an indoor court is perfect for her. Strycova has put in some outstanding Fed Cup performances in the last couple of years, and Siniakova and Krejikova make up the number 1 ranked doubles team in the world. (And just in case something should go wrong in that department, Strycova is outstanding in doubles play.)




The USA's team consists of Danielle Collins, Sonya Kenin, Alison Riske, and Nicole Melichar.

Melichar, who is making her Fed Cup debut, was born in the Czech Republic. She is a quickly rising star in doubles, having won the 2018 Wimbledon mixed doubles (with Alexander Peya) title, and emerged (with Kveta Peschke) as the 2018 Wimbledon runner-up. Melichar is currently ranked number 15 in the world in doubles.

Kenin entered the top 100 this year, and has already knocked off a couple of elite players (Daria Kasatkina and Caroline Garcia). The aggressive Moscow native is a lot of fun to watch, and it will interesting to watch her in her Fed Cup debut.

To get to the final, the Czech Republic defeated both Switzerland and Germany. Team USA defeated Netherlands and France.

The Czech team is coached by Petr Pala, and Team USA is coached by Kathy Rinaldi-Stunkel.

In other Fed Cup news, Petra Kvitova just won the latest Fed Cup Heart Award.