Today in Moscow, the Russian team became the only team in Fed Cup history to win a semifinal after being down 0-2. The commentators I listened to were surprised that Ekaterina Makarova was put in as a substitute for Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova; I would have been surprised if she hadn't been. Makarova played Daniela Hantuchova of the Slovak Republic for two and a half hours, and the match was riveting. It was, in fact, one of my favorite matches of the season.
Makarova--a player who knows how to rise to an occasion--won the first set 6-3, and was a point away from going up 5-3 in the second set. Hantuchova would have none of that, however, and she took the second set 6-4.
Throughout all three sets, there were some tense, and highly entertaining, rallies. The only problem was that one of them had to lose. That turned out to be Hantuchova, who had led by a break in the third set. But there was drama, even at the match's conclusion, as Hantuchova served at 4-5. On her first match point, Makarova broke a racket string. On her second, she made an unforced error. On her third match point, the Russian thought she had won the rubber with an impossible-to-return shot, and the Russian crowd began to scream.....but for Hantuchova, nothing seemed impossible; she practically willed herself to return the ball. On the fourth match point, Hantuchova hit an excellent serve, but then backed off of the approach shot just enough for Makarova to conclude the match.
Makarova's victory allowed Russia to catch up with the Slovak Republic. Earlier in the day, Maria Kirilenko had beaten Dominika Cibulkova in straight sets. It all went to the doubles rubber, and once again, Makarova rose to the occasion, as did her partner, Elena Vesnina. The Slovak team of Hantuchova and Cibulkova won the first set 6-4. The Russian won the second set 6-3, and--as it seemed fated--a final set was needed to determine who would go to the 2013 Fed Cup final.
It was at that point that Hantuchova lost her way. A series of missed volleys by the highly accomplished doubles veteran made it pretty easy to the Russian team to close, and Makarova and Vesnina won the set 6-1.
She won one singles rubber and lost one, and she lost a crucial doubles rubber, but I still really enjoyed watching Hantuchova at this Fed Cup event. A clean ball-striker and good court thinker, Hantuchova has had to battle nerves throughout her career. This weekend, however, she did show how exciting her game can be.
The Russian team does not know who will be the opponent in the final. Rain delayed play in Palermo for most of the day, and after only one match was played, darkness delayed further play. Actually, the rain began in the third set of the completed match, and was coming down hard enough toward the end that I wondered whether play would be suspended. But the falling raindrops were nothing compared to the cascade of winners coming off of Petra Kvitova's racket.
Kvitova defeated Sara Errani (who has never beaten the Czech player) 2-6, 6-2, 6-0. Naturally, Kvitova had to spend the first set making unforced errors and looking lost; she was down 0-5 for a while. But "the switch" was turned on for the second set, and for the rest of the match, Kvitova would pretty much go crazy on the Italian, displaying the serves, groundstrokes and volleys that made her such a star in 2011. With both her form and her spirit working at exceptionally high levels, Kvitova made everything look so easy. She won eleven games in a row, hit a total of 26 winners, and looked--at least for a while--like the major talent that she is. And this on her "worst" surface.
Kvitova's defeat of Errani meant that the defending champions were still in the mix. Now, Lucie Safarova has to play Roberta Vinci, which should be a tall order for Safarova. Should she beat Vinci, however, the semifinal would go to a deciding, fifth (doubles) rubber. Veteran Fed Cup stars Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone are scheduled to play doubles for Italy, but it seems more likely that Errani and Vinci would be substituted for the scheduled pair. In that case, at least Errani would have had some rest.