PRAGUE, November 11, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
The Czech Republic, without its two biggest stars, has won its sixth Fed Cup by BNP Paribas title in eight years – and 11th championship overall. All from a country that bills itself as “a Land of Stories” and has about one-quarter of the population of the state of California.
On Sunday, in front of another sell-out crowd inside Prague’s O2 Arena, the Czech Republic minus Petra Kvitova (illness) and Karolina Pliskova (knee injury) defeated a hungry but inexperienced United States team with little star power or big names, 3-0.
Sometimes, it’s the secondary players who provide the biggest drama – and best stories. Take the Czech Republic’s Katerina Siniakova, for instance. She won two critical rubbers and anchored her team at No. 1 singles in Kvitova’s absence.
Needing just one point to clinch her team’s tie victory and earn another title, the 22-year-old Siniakova came up huge against Fed Cup rookie Sofia Kenin of the United States and won, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5, in a marathon-length three hours and 44 minutes full of dramatic play that tugged at everyone’s heartstrings. At the end, an emotionally-drained Siniakova looked happy – albeit relieved – and received a big hug from one of her Czech teammates, doubles No. 1 Barbora Krejcikova. Meanwhile, Kenin, playing in her first Fed Cup tie, broke into tears and was consoled by her U.S. teammates and captain Kathy Rinaldi once she reached her bench. The young American can be forgiven because she gave it her all in just her second Fed Cup rubber. (Later, still emotional during the awards ceremony, she received a very deserving standing ovation from the O2 Arena audience.)
Soon, after the final point ended, the entire Czech team – including Kvitova – arrived on court feeling giddy and began the first of many victory celebrations, dancing in a large circle that also included captain Petr Pala, and other staff. Within minutes, the top Czech men’s star, Tomas Berdych, tweeted, “Holky velká gratulace!!!” (Translated, his tweet said, “Girls, big congratulations!!!)
— Tomáš Berdych (@tomasberdych) 11. November 2018
During an on-court interview after she won her second rubber and the team’s third point of the tie, which clinched the 2018 Fed Cup title, Siniakova spoke about the atmosphere at the O2 Arena. “The atmosphere here, I have to thank the fans – they came here and supported me for the whole match and really helped me. It was amazing. I couldn’t imagine they could be so loud,” she said. “In the end, I felt I’m playing for them, not just for me. They helped me very much.”
With everything on the line, Siniakova jumped out to an early 2-0 lead in the opening set by playing steadier than Kenin while also taking advantage of some early miscues by her opponent. However, Kenin fought back and broke Siniakova twice to level the set at 3-all. Next, a double-fault by Kenin gave Siniakova her third break of serve to go ahead 5-3. Serving for the set, Siniakova was unable to close it out. She was broken, again, and Kenin consolidated the break by winning a 10-point game to even at 5-all. Then, Siniakova serged ahead 6-5 with a love game that included her fourth service ace. Finally, she won the 65-minute set, 7-5, on her third set-point opportunity with a solid forehand winner that broke Kenin’s serve for the fourth time.
After her win Saturday against American Alison Riske, Siniakova said the key to her playing well was “to fight for every point and focus on every point. Trying to be on my game and when I have a chance, just go for it and be aggressive.”
In the second set, which lasted 66 minutes, Siniakova followed the same principle for success – taking chances and being aggressive – as she raced to a quick 3-0 lead with a couple of easy holds sandwiched in between by a break. She hit big on just about every point opportunity. As is her style, Siniakova played enthusiastically and improvised some amazing shots. With each point she won, the cacophony of sound created by the mostly-Czech crowd of 10,700 inside O2 Arena seemed to energize the Czech No. 1. The crowd had her back. Credit to Kenin for not giving up, though. She faced a great challenge against Siniakova and in trying to silence the Czech fans.
After fighting off two break points to hold, Kenin broke Siniakova in the next game to get back on serve, and fight her way to hold for 3-all. Then, she broke Siniakova to take a 4-3 lead. However, Kenin squandered a 30-love advantage and the Czech seized the opportunity to break back for 4-all. What a rollercoaster of a match! Then, serving with a 40-15 lead, Siniakova hit a backhanded, cross-court winner to serge ahead 5-4, needing just four more points to clinch the Cup. It wouldn’t be easy, though.
At the changeover, as the TV cameras zoomed in, U.S. captain Rinaldi encouraged Kenin to stay focused and keep a clear head. It seemed to work as Kenin steadied herself and held serve for 5-all, then broke at love to regain the lead 6-5 as Siniakova committed a costly unforced error by hitting a backhand return wide. Suddenly, there was silence throughout O2 Arena. Although Siniakova fought off three set points on Kenin’s serve in the next game, the American prevailed on her fourth set-point opportunity. She hit a sizzling forehand winner past her lunging opponent to cap a 10-minute set-deciding game, winning 7-5, that forced a deciding third set. Having extended Barbora Strycova to three sets in her debut rubber on Saturday, the 19-year-old Kenin – just days before her 20th birthday – was ready to go the distance, again.
The final set, played out over one hour and 33 minutes, began just like the second one with Siniakova jumping ahead 3-0 as Kenin began to show signs of an injury. With her left thigh already heavily taped, she received medical attention for her left quad during the change over following the third game. Meanwhile, Siniakova conversed with Pala, who steadied her nerves and offered encouragement. When play resumed after the medical time out, Kenin held serve. However, she failed to convert five break-point chances during an epic 26-point (including 10 deuces), 19-minute and 2-second game – featuring an exciting 21-shot rally – and Siniakova finally held on for a 4-1 lead. Then, after Kenin held serve in the sixth game, she promptly broke Siniakova to get back on serve at 3-4, showing her competitive spirit. Kenin evened the set at 4-all, fighting back with a solid hold, and broke Siniakova, again, this time at love to go ahead 5-4 as the Czech’s serve failed her miserably. The pressure, it appeared, was starting to take its toll on Siniakova.
With Kenin serving to get her first Fed Cup win and the United States’ first point of the final, Siniakova fought off one match point by winning a 25-shot rally. Then, at 40-30, Kenin hit a forehand long that erased a second match point. Next, Siniakova earned a break point when Kenin netted a return, then broke her for 5-all (it was her ninth break point won) as the American hit a another long return. Immediately, Siniakova fell behind 0-40 on her serve – staring at a possible ninth service break – before winning the next five points to hold and go ahead 6-5. Just when you thought that the Czech was on the verge of an emotional meltdown at the most inopportune of times, she found a way to pull herself together and win a critical game.
On Kenin’s next – and final – service game, Siniakova gained a match point and the O2 Arena crowd exploded into cheers on a ball that they thought was out. Siniakova stopped playing. The ball was ruled in. Kenin gained deuce. But on Siniakova’s next match-point chance, she won the game, 7-5, with her 143rd point, and with it the rubber – and the Fed Cup for the Czech Republic. As the O2 Arena crowd erupted into celebration, Siniakova threw her hands into the air, too.
— Fed Cup (@FedCup) 11. November 2018
Fed Cup notes
• The final statistics mostly favored Katerina Siniakova. She finished with five aces against four double faults, won 41 of 74 (54 percent) first-serve points and 31 of 59 (53 percent) second-serve points. She hit 24 winners while committing 43 unforced errors, and broke her opponent nine times in 18 tries. As for Kenin, the American ended with zero aces, five double faults, won 57 of 98 (58 percent) first-serve points and 12 of 37 (32 percent) second-serve points. She hit 42 winners, but committed 76 unforced errors. She converted just eight of 23 break-point opportunities. Siniakova outpointed Kenin 143-134.
• Because the third singles rubber decided the outcome of the final, and it was at least two full sets in duration, neither the fourth singles rubber or the doubles rubber were played.
• During an on-court ceremony honoring three outstanding Czech players before the start of Sunday’s play, Lucie Safarova was recognized for her outstanding Fed Cup career, Helena Sukova for her recent induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, and Barbora Strycova for her final Fed Cup tie. Safarova and Sukova, who won seven Fed Cup titles between them, were presented with Fed Cup Commitment Awards for their dedication in representing their nation in Fed Cup.
• According to WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen, the Czechs won the most singles titles on the WTA Tour this year, with Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova combining for seven. The Czech Republic was the only country two players in the Top 10.
• When Katerina Siniakova (22 years 6 months and 1 day) and Sofia Kenin (19 years 11 months and 28 days) took court Sunday, they represented the youngest rubber in a Fed Cup final since 2004.
• This year’s Fed Cup final was the 13th meeting between the Czech Republic and the United States. Although the United States still dominates the head-to-head 10-3, the Czechs have won two of three finals (1985 and 2018) while the United States won in 1986.