Fed Cup: Never Underestimate The Importance Of Playing For One’s Teammates And Country

Michael Dickens' wrap-up of last weekend's World Group first round ties.

Fed Cup Fed Cup (photo: twitter/Fed Cup)

WASHINGTON, February 12, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)

The Czech Republic has won five of the last seven Fed Cup championships. On Sunday, playing in front of an enthusiastic audience of 12,000 fans in Prague’s O2 Arena, Petra Kvitova bested Belinda Bencic of Switzerland, 6-2, 6-4, to clinch the Czech’s 10th consecutive semifinal berth. The Czechs dominated the Swiss 3-1 despite the absence of its highest-ranked player, world No. 5 Karolina Pliskova, who was ill.

“Im very pleased and very proud of the girls and of Petra,” said Czech team captain Petr Pala, who was full of praise for his team that included Kvitova, Barbora Strykova and Lucie Safarova.

On Saturday, Kvitova gave the Czechs an early lead with a 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 win over Viktorija Golubic, then Strykova made it 2-0 after beating Bencic 6-2, 6-4. Following Kvitova’s tie-clinching win, the Swiss won the dead rubber doubles as Timea Bacsinszky and Jil Teichmann bested Safarova and Strykova, 1-6, 6-4, 10-8.

The 27-year-old Kvitova, who was making her first Fed Cup appearance since a home invasion knife attack in December 2016 severely injured her left hand, relied upon a solid serve and big forehand to control her rallies in both of her matches. After her win Sunday, Kvitova said she was more calm than she was in her first match. “I think yesterday (Saturday) the crowd and the people in here threw me and I had more emotions than I did today.”

Next, the third-seeded Czech Republic will travel to face unseeded Germany on April 21-22.

Germany wins for new captain

Germany earned its first semifinal berth since 2015 when it beat Belarus 3-2 at Minsk on Sunday. The tie came down to the doubles rubber and Tatjana Maria and Anna-Lena Groenefeld came back after losing the first set to beat Aryna Sabalenka and Lidziya Marozava, 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-4.

“I can hardly speak,” said Germany’s new team captain Jens Gerlach after his team advanced. “It was such an intense weekend. The girls just did a great, great job.”

After splitting the first two singles rubbers on Saturday, Maria pushed the Germans ahead with a 6-4, 5-7, 6-0 win over Vera Lapko. However, Sabalenka kept Belarus’s chances alive by beating Antonia Lottner, 6-3, 5-7, 6-2, to force a fifth rubber.

“The feeling ahead of the doubles was still good,” said Gerlach. “Antonia (Lottner) played such a strong match against Sabalenka, but she just turned it on in the final set.”

After winning her 20th Fed Cup match, an elated Groenefeld said, “We kept on telling each other to keep going for every point and we kept reminding each other of our last match together. We stayed positive and it is an unbelievable feeling.

“It’s amazing, this is what you play tennis for, to play for your country in matches like this. To take the tie in this way makes it so special. It’s unbelievable. For me, this is the best win for my country.”

Mladenovic carries France to victory

Without Caroline Garcia or Alize Cornet, France relied upon Kristina Mladenovic to carry Les Bleus its first-round tie against Belgium at La Roche Sur Yon. Mladenovic did everything asked of her – she won both of her singles points and teamed with Amandine Hesse to win the doubles rubber – and France advanced with a 3-2 victory on Sunday. It set up a semifinal tie against the United States on April 21-22, which France will host.

On Saturday, Mladenovic beat Kristen Flipkens, 6-2, 6-4, after Belgium won the opening rubber behind Australian Open finalist Elise Mertens. Then, as Sunday’s play commenced, Mladenovic bested Mertens, 6-4, 6-4 to give the French a 2-1 advantage. However, Belgium rebounded with a win by Alison Van Uytvanck over Pauline Parmentier, 6-1, 6-3, that meant the outcome of the tie would be decided by the doubles rubber.

At a set apiece, Mladenovic and Hesse came on strong in the final set to earn a satisfying 6-4, 2-6, 6-2 win over Flipkens and Mertens. “I couldn’t wait to win this match,” said Hesse. “I was so excited. My stomach was so painful. I was trying to stay focused and Kiki helped me a lot with this. She was telling me every point, ‘relax, we will do it, take your time.’ I think it helped me a lot today.”

Serena excited to be back

By all accounts, Serena Williams‘ official return to professional tennis was a rusty one complete with a shanked overhead as well as mishit returns and volleys. On Sunday, she played doubles with her older sister Venus in a dead rubber after the defending Fed Cup champion United States had clinched its first-round tie victory over the Netherlands, and they lost 6-2, 6-3 to Lesley Kerkhove and Demi Schuurs. It was Serena’s first tour-level match since winning the Australian Open in January 2017.

Despite the outcome, Williams said she felt good about being on court again and, to her credit, saved some break points on her serve and faced some pressure situations.

“It felt really good to be back on the court,” said Williams, after the match, during her post-match press conference. “It’s just exciting to be out there. I honestly feel better than I thought I was going to feel. I feel like I’m on the right track.”

Williams was asked about the difficulty of returning to competitive tennis following the birth of her first child and balancing her expectations. “I think if I walk out there with low expectations, then I need to stop doing what I do,” she said. “So that’s never going to happen for me. I’m always going to have the best and highest expectations for myself. I’m okay with that because that’s just who I am.”

Asked if she was overwhelmed by traveling for the first time with her 5-month-old baby daughter, Alexis Olympia, who enjoyed a front-row seat on the lap of her father throughout the weekend, Williams said it was definitely more than she expected. “I didn’t expect to have such emotions and such feelings, even though you hear about it all the time,” she said. “But I definitely felt way more emotions, just a connection that I never thought I would ever feel.

“It’s an incredible learning experience. I didn’t manage my time well, but I was thinking about it in the future how to manage it better. This is literally my first time traveling with the baby and everything. I’m going to try to do it better.”

What they are saying

Kathy Rinaldi, U.S. team captain, asked if her team’s victory over the Netherlands was the perfect way to start this year’s Fed Cup journey: “Absolutely. We started off with a win this weekend. We’re on our way. We just take one match at a time. We’re very excited and blessed to be in this opportunity, to have this opportunity.” 

Paul Haarhuis, Netherlands team captain, on the competitive return of Serena Williams: “She lacks match practice. She needs to play matches, get the first serve, the second serve, the returns, the court sense. … I think she’s going to be fine. She’s got the game, you know.”

Venus Williams on what securing the U.S. tie with her singles-clinching win meant: “This is an important moment, when you’re playing not just for yourself but your other team members and your captain, for your country. It’s definitely a different kind of pressure. For the next tie, I think we are all excited about playing. I mean, I know CoCo has like this streak going, so I think she’ll be the first one to say, ‘Let me in.'”

Tatjana Maria of Germany describing her team’s spirit after defeating Belarus: “It’s amazing what we’ve achieved today. The whole team has been fighting all week long. I think we won this tie because everyone in the team has been positive the whole time. We are so together, without them we wouldn’t be here.”

About the author

Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.