Sunday, April 21, 2019

That was just the SEMIFINALS?!

I can't imagine how the players feel because I am exhausted from watching this weekend's Fed Cup World Group semifinals, not to mention all the other Fed Cup matches I watched. There were many exciting moments. Some, I'm sure, occurred during the Australia vs. Belarus tie, but because of the time difference, I wasn't able to watch any of that. However, the France-Romania tie had enough drama to wear me out.

Today reminded me, once again, of why I love Fed Cup. Fed Cup is filled with drama, almost every moment. Players we don't get to see much on the tour suddenly become their nation's most valued players. Major champions are upset by players ranked far below them. The crowds go wild. What's not to love?

Romania has seemed poised to reach the Fed Cup final for a while. With Simona Halep as the leader and the stunningly inventive Monica Niculescu around as the creative force, just add a touch of Begu and a visit from Dr. Buz, and the potential is high. Earlier this year, Romania and defending champion Czech Republic went to a fifth rubber, and Romania's task was to take out the world number 1 doubles team, Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova. Irina-Camelia Begu and Monica Niculescu did just that, in three tough sets.

This weekend, Halep defeated both (together again!) Kiki Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia. I sometimes think that the word "epic" is overused in describing tennis matches, but if anyone wants to call the Garcia-Halep match epic, I'm all in. It was three hours of of absolutely grueling clay court tennis, featuring the highest quality imaginable from both players. We'll still be talking about it at the end of the season.

The match had some unusual features. Both players won an amazing number of points off of their second serves. Neither did well at the net. It was a baseline slug-out that featured repeated gasp-worthy shots. It was an event. But, sadly, someone had to lose, and it was Garcia who blinked when she double-faulted twice at 4-all in the third.

Halep's defeat of Garcia put the teams at 2-1, but then Pauline Parmentier was put in to play Begu in the fourth rubber, and she evened the score at 2-all. It took a doubles rubber to determine who would reach the Fed Cup final. And it was only fitting that that rubber went three sets. Former French Open champions Garcia and Mladenovic, who had a falling out and haven't played together in a long time, were supposed to have faced off against Begu and Niculescu. However, Begu injured her ankle in the third rubber, so Halep was sent in as her replacement. And, while Niculescu was clearly the star (as she in any doubles match she plays), Halep was pretty impressive on the doubles court.

Garcia and Mladenovic were rusty, and it didn't take much for the Romanians to get an edge over them and take the first set. In fact, Romania looked rather good in the second set, too, and then--suddenly--some switch was pulled on the French side. The symbiotic muscle memory returned, and the French team started to look like themselves again. They won that set, and they won the third set, whose turning point occurred toward the end when an obviously fatigued Halep double-faulted.

France was in the Fed Cup final in 2016, under the able and creative leadership of Captain Amelie Mauresmo, but they lost to the Czech Republic in another five-rubber event. Now they're back in the final, this time under the leadership of Julien Benneteau, who appears to have that Mauresmo spirit. Their opponent will be team Australia, who will host the event.

Looking ahead to the final--and assuming that no one important is sick or injured (and no one insults anyone), I can't help but imagine yet another fifth rubber, in which the current Australian Open champions play the former French Open champions. A match featuring Ash Barty and Sam Stosur opposing Garcia and Mladenovic sounds pretty exciting.


Barty, of course, has come into her own, and is one of the most exciting players on the tour. In Australia's tie against Belarus, Barty defeated both Vika Azarenka and Aryna Sabalenka. Both members of team Belarus defeated Stosur, so tie also went to a deciding fifth rubber, which Barty and Stosur won.


There were a lot of other things going on. Katie Boulter was a stand-out this weekend as she played two great rubbers against team Kazakhstan. She lost the first one--a three-set thriller--to Yulia Putintseva, then she defeated Zarina Diyas to take Great Britain over the line, after her teammate, Johanna Konta, defeated Putintseva. Great Britain is now into World Group II for the first time.

Not surprisingly, the Czech Republic won its World Group Play-Offs tie against Canada, and Lucie Safarova, playing in her final Fed Cup event, was given a worthy send-off. Also in the World Group Play-Offs, Alona Ostapenko lost both of her singles rubbers (to Julia Goerges and Mona Barthel). Anastasija Sevastova wasn't there to assist, and Germany defeated Latvia.

Sevastova wasn't the only top player missing this weekend. Angie Kerber, Belinda Bencic, Petra Kvitova, Karolina Pliskova, Elise Mertens, Dasha Kasatkina and Fed Cup Beast Kiki Bertens were all absent.

Garbine Muguruza was there, but that didn't help Spain in its tie against Belgium. The former French Open and Wimbledon champion lost both of her singles rubbers, to Kirsten Flipkens and Ysaline Bonaventure. Spain won, anyway, with the help of Carla Suarez Navarro (and Muguruza, in the doubles rubber).

Finally, also in the World Group Play-Offs, the USA played Switzerland. Viktorija Golubic, known for her Fed Cup antics, took out a listless Madison Keys in straight sets. The mercurial Sloane Stephens won both of her singles rubbers, beating both Golubic and Timea Bacsinszky, and Sonya Kenin, substituting for Keys, defeated Bacsinszky, thereby taking the USA over the line.

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