WASHINGTON, February 11, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
Romania pulled off one of the great upsets in Fed Cup by BNP Paribas history when it dealt the defending World Group champion Czech Republic a 3-2 loss, its first home tie defeat in 10 years, in Ostrava on Sunday evening.
While it might have been Simona Halep’s weekend, thanks to the former World No. 1 gutting out a pair of important victories in the first and third rubbers for Romania – which included her epic 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 win over former No. 1 Karolina Pliskova on Sunday – it was also a team triumph that, in her words, made it “close to my best day ever in my career.”
With the tie even at 2-2, it came down to a decisive doubles rubber, which matched underdog Romanians Irina-Camelia Begu (ranked 35th in doubles) and Monica Niculescu (51st) against the top-ranked Czech pair of Katerina Siniakova and Barbora Krejcikova, who just happen to be the reigning French Open and Wimbledon champions.
Playing in front of a packed Ostravar Arena crowd that numbered more than 6,000 fans – most of them cheering loudly and proudly for the Czechs – Begu and Niculescu came from a set down to pull out a 6-7 (2), 6-4, 6-4 victory that lasted almost three hours. With nothing to lose and everything to gain, the 31-year-old Niculescu showed brilliant anticipation around the net time and again throughout the rubber. Her forehand volley winner clinched Romania’s upset victory and secured her country’s berth in the April semifinals against France. It was Niculescu’s 31st Fed Cup triumph in 12 years of representing Romania.
“It was so tough because we played the No. 1 in the world,” said Niculescu during a TV interview afterward, still in shock. “We knew we had to be sharp – and it worked. It worked! … I wanted so much to win. The crowd helped us. I have no idea how we won, but I think the crowd was behind us and supporting us.” Indeed, there was a small but enthusiastic group of Romanian fans sitting behind the team bench, cheering and screaming every point Begu and Niculescu scored.
“My best day – and there’s more to come,” Niculescu added.
Czech captain Petr Pala, whose team had previously won six final-rubber deciders during his country’s six-title dynasty, said: “We didn’t lose this tie, the Romanians won it. Over the past decade, these close ties have gone 90 percent in our favor; we have to accept this. I’m not disappointed, only for the girls because it’s hard to see how upset they are. But they left everything on the court. As always, they made me proud.”
Romania’s team captain Florin Segarceanu summed up his and his team’s feelings, saying: “What a day. Hell and heaven. It was unbelievable, a dream come true. We are in the semis, we have a great team – and we won’t stop until we win it.”
Positive stress paid off for Garcia, France
France’s No. 1 singles player Caroline Garcia, ranked 19th in the world, made her return to Fed Cup for the first time since the 2016 final a memorable one. She scored a pair of victories that lifted the French over Belgium in Liege.
First, on Saturday, she beat Alison Van Uytvanck, 7-6 (2), 4-6, 6-2. Then, she clinched the tie for France with a 6-2, 6-3 win over No. 21 Elise Mertens. She attacked her opponent throughout the 77-minute rubber and secured match point with a backhand lob on the run that was followed with a forehand winner. Garcia improved to 10-4 in Fed Cup singles and 15-5 overall.
“I was not feeling any different because I hadn’t played for two years, no extra pressure or anything,” Garcia, 25, was quoted by the Fed Cup website as saying. “I was a bit stressed, but it was positive stress – it means you care about it, and you want to do well.”
With France advancing to the World Group semifinals, it meant a successful start for new team captain Julien Benneteau, who replaced the retired Yannick Noah. “Yesterday (Saturday), I said I was a happy captain, and today (Sunday) I’m even happier. The way Caroline played … was a very good level of tennis. Today, she hit the ball better than yesterday, and tactically it was right what she did on the court. Elise is a very good player, a top 20 player. To beat her at home is not easy.”
Benneteau said that although only Garcia and Alize Cornet saw action for France, “Everybody was prepared to be on court, and for the rest of the season the truth of now is not the truth in two months. Everybody must stay very focused, because anything can happen.”
Fed Cup news and quotes
• On Monday, the ITF announced the seeds for the World Group and World Group II playoffs. The draws, which will be streamed live on the Fed Cup’s website (www.fedcup.com), will take place on Tuesday, Feb. 12, at the ITF headquarters in London starting at 12:00 p.m. GMT.
The four seeded nations in the World Group playoffs are: 1. Czech Republic; 2. United States; 3. Germany; 4. Belgium. The seeds are based on the new Fed Cup Nations Ranking as of Feb. 11. Each of the seeds will be drawn against one of the following four unseeded nations: Canada, Latvia, Spain and Switzerland.
The four seeded nations in the World Group II playoffs are: 1. Russia; 2. Netherlands; 3. Great Britain; 4. Slovakia. Each of the seeded teams will be draw against one of the following four unseeded nations: Brazil, Italy, Japan and Kazakhstan.
• Alicia Molik, Australia team captain, on her team’s 3-2 upset of Team USA, last year’s finalist: “We were here more than a week early to prepare. It’s not a problem for anyone to get here a week early, get the work in. We realize that, we understand why we need to do it. That’s probably what I’m most proud of.”
• Nicole Melichar, Team USA, who played in the deciding doubles rubber against Australia: “Honestly, I think it came down to a few points. It really could have gone either way. But also, credit to them, Ash (Barty) came up with some big serving.”
• Danielle Collins, Team USA, whose singles win evened her team’s tie against Australia and also played on the losing side in doubles: “Even though we lost today, we’ve built a really great bond with each other. I wish we could have done more (on the court), but it was a really great experience.”
• Elise Mertens, Team Belgium singles player, tweeted on Monday: “Glad to be part of this team. Even though we didn’t make it happen this weekend, I am very grateful for this experience. Thank you for all the support this weekend, especially the ones who came to Liege. One team, one dream.”