Sunday, February 10, 2019

The mighty Czechs fall to Romania in the season's first Fed Cup tie

During the 2018 World Group Fed Cup final, I wrote "No Petra, no Karo, no problem." After this weekend's tie, I expected to write "No Petra, no Lucie, no Bara, no problem." But there were problems, and their names were Simona Halep and Monica Niculescu. Of course, I expected world number 2 Halep to be a problem. Her defeat of Katerina Siniakova didn't come easily in the opening set, but Halep ran away with the second. She then defeated Karolina Pliskova 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 in a two hour and 37-minute extravaganza of superb play. In the end, it was Halep's total mastery that won the point for Romania.

Pliskova and Siniakova both defeated Mihaela Buzarnescu, so the final decision was made in the doubles rubber. This contest certainly looked stacked in favor of the Czechs, given that the Czech doubles team of Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova are the number 1 doubles team in the world. Last season, they won two majors. But, as well as they played, they couldn't quite get past the storm of determination and variety that came at them in the form of Romania's Irina-Camelia Begu and Monica Niculescu.

The match was an absolute joy to watch, and if you had a favorite, you were probably a wreck by the last third of the third set. It was that close. The Czechs, always playing behind, took the first set 7-6 by raising their level in the tiebreak. The Romanians won the second set 6-4, and the third set was up for grabs. Again, the Czechs played from behind, as Niculescu kept popping up from nowhere like a cartoon character, slapping every conceivable type of volley and flummoxing the world's top team.

But at 3-4, with Niculescu finally winding down and going off her game, the Czechs broke at love (the ninth break of the match), and it looked, for all the world, like a case of champions figuring out how to win. But the Romanians would have none of it. They broke back, and then held their final serve with Niculescu, of course, popping up at the net one last time at match point.

It was the first time in a decade that the defending champion Czech team had lost a Fed Cup tie at home.

In the semifinals, Romania will face France, who defeated Belgium 3-0. Caroline Garcia, returning to France's team after taking a break, defeated both Alison Van Uytvanck and Elise Mertens. Interestingly, it was the Van Uytvanck rubber that went three sets. But for me, the story of this tie was Alize Cornet's defeat of world number 21 Mertens. Cornet has historically been a disaster with regard to her Fed Cup efforts, and consequently, she generally isn't high on the list to compete, despite her talent.

That talent, in terms of both athleticism and tennis intelligence, is superior, but the Frenchwoman's inconsistent exploitation of it is infamous. When Cornet is good, she's very, very good--and when she's off her game, she's such a disappointment. Cornet has long been my pick for "most underused potential" on the entire tour, and it can be very frustrating to follow that career.

But this weekend, Cornet brought her athleticism, her tennis finesse and her positive mindset to the court. Her match against Mertens was a two-set contest, but it was a thing of beauty, and my favorite singles match of those I saw during this Fed Cup tie. Cornet defeated Mertens 7-6, 6-2, which doesn't sound like a very interesting scoreline, but the match itself had everything, for Mertens--like Cornet--has a lot of variety in her game and a good (but inconsistent) serve.

Not suprisingly (though surprises do run rampant during Fed Cup play), Belarus defeated Germany 3-0. With Aryna Sabalenka and Aliaksandra Sasnovich on the team, Belarus is a force.

Finally, in World Group play, the USA and Australia had to go to a fifth rubber to determine who would advance to the semifinals. In singles, Ash Barty defeated both Sofia Kenin and Madison Keys, and Keys defeated Kimberly Birrell. Then Danielle Collins, playing in her first Fed Cup match, came from a break down in the third set to defeat Dasha Gavrilova 6-1, 3-6, 6-2.

In the doubles rubber, Barty returned, and Australia substituted Priscilla Hon for Gavrilova. USA doubles specialist Nicole Melichar was teamed with Danielle Collins. The match was well-played by all four participants, and it was quite entertaining. Australia won, 6-4, 7-5, and advanced to the semifinals to play Belarus.

Here are the World Group II results:

Switzerland def. Italy, 3-0
Latvia def. Slovakia, 3-0
Spain def. Japan, 3-2
Canada def. Netherlands*, 3-0

*Fed Cup beast Kiki Bertens was not on the team for this tie.

Latvia will now enter the World Group Play-Offs for the first time.

(Note: Dead rubbers are not counted in the above scores.)