Saturday, April 5, 2014

Cepelova wins Charleston thriller and advances to final

Photo by Daniel Ward

I was so looking forward to the Charleston semifinal between Belinda Bencic and Jana Cepelova (I had referred to the Bouchard-Petkovic semifinal as the "appetizer"), that right before the match began, I had to remind myself about what happens when you build something up too much in your head. I also reminded myself that one player (Bencic) had already played six matches, and that the other one had sustained a leg injury during the tournament, and had complained of a sore shoulder. Was I expecting too much?

Well, it turns out I wasn't. The 17-year-old Swiss player and the 20-year-old Slovak brought everything they had onto the Billie Jean King Stadium Court this afternoon, and for over 2 hours and 33 minutes, fans were treated to just about everything they could ask for in a semifinal, and a little more. The drama ended with a 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 victory for Cepelova, and the scoreline alone should give you an idea of what a drama this match was.

Bencic and Cepelova--though undoubtedly weary both mentally and physically--went after each other with a fierceness that made me wonder whether I had been transported to a second-day Fed Cup match. And while not everyone in the crowd may have entered the stadium knowing just who the players were, it didn't take them long to get caught up in the drama of this clay court thriller. "Go Belinda!" somone would yell. "Come on, Jana!" someone else would call out. "Pome!" screamed Cepelova. And then Bencic would channel Maria Sharapova and scream "Pome!" right back at her.

Belinda Bencic (photo by Daniel Ward)
Bencic was able to rely on her serve to get her out of trouble at big moments. She hit seven aces, and two of them were hit in the last game of the second set, which she won. This was after she had served for the set three times, so the aces were especially impressive, considering the pressure she was under. Also, at 3-4, deuce, in the third set, Bencic hit two big serves to even the set at 4-all. And--most dramatic of all--serving at 4-5, 30-40 in the final set--she saved a match point, then hit an ace to hold.

The match featured momentum swings that occurred suddenly, and then disappeared just as suddenly. There was an excessive amount of running, sliding and bending, and Cepelova took another spill, this time scraping her knee, for which she needed a brief medical timeout. Cepelova is nothing if not scrappy, and is therefore a very physical player. Bencic is more cerebral, and this tension created some of the innate drama in the match. Both players had repeated emotional outbursts, but these outbursts seemed like natural releases of energy; both Cepelova and Bencic seem to know just when to "let it out."

It seemed inevitable that a third set tiebreak would happen, and it did. And, as so often occurs in the third set tiebreak of a long, tense match, one of the players goes flat. It was Cepelova, who let Bencic run up to a 4-1 lead. But--given the dynamics of the match, and given the fighting spirit of Cepelova--no easy path could be predicted for the Swiss woman. Momentum change--Bencic began making errors, including a double fault. Then, after she won a long, exciting rally to go up 5-all, Bencic double-faulted again. She thought she had hit an ace on her first serve, and then appeared somewhat rattled to find out that she hadn't.

Cepelova had a second match point at 5-6 in the tiebreak, but she landed the ball in the net. When Bencic hit a backhand out, Cepelova had a third match point, but tossed that ball into the net, too. That put them at 7-all. At 8-7, Cepelova had her fourth match point, which she converted when Bencic--aiming for the far ad corner--hit another ball out.

Photo by Daniel Ward
Cepelova, as I mentioned earlier, is here alone--no coach, no physio, no family, no anybody. Last night, she had dinner on site, and said that she would do room service tonight, and that the tour will make a physio available to her. Cepelova said she wishes she had someone close to her to talk to, but that she was communicating with home by fist-pumping toward the cameras. She knows how to motivate herself; when she was three points from victory, she wrote a "3" into the clay.

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