WASHINGTON, May 1, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
Lucie Safarova said good bye to Prague on Wednesday afternoon. There were tears mixed with smiles, but no regrets from the Czech Republic star.
At about 2:20 p.m., in the first round of the J & T Banka Prague Open doubles draw, the last point of a third-set, first-to-10 tie break ended. The 32-year-old Safarova, a native of Brno who paired with Czech compatriot Barbora Stefkova, lost to unheralded Makoto Ninomiya of Japan and Yana Sizikova of Russia, 6-4, 4-6, 13-11.
The chair umpire had suspended the match Tuesday night at 8:40 p.m., after one hour and seven minutes of play, because of darkness. Ninomiya and Sizikova were ahead 6-4, 3-3.
Safarova was given a reprieve, so to speak, and the tournament organizers tore up Wednsesday’s order of play in order that her doubles match could continue on Centre Court after the completion of the first singles match of the day. It was a fitting tribute for Safarova, even if the final score meant that her career had abruptly ended – at least, in front of her home country fans.
— WTA (@WTA) 1. Mai 2019
“I’ll probably play Paris,” Safarova said afterward during a press conference, quoted by the WTA website. The French Open is where Safarova is a two-time doubles champion (2015 and 2017) with Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the United States, and she also reached her only Grand Slam singles final in 2015, where she lost to Serena Williams of the U.S. in three sets.
Indeed, it’s hard to believe that Safarova, who has been a recognizable face in Czech women’s tennis for so long, both for winning Grand Slam titles and contributing to her country’s Fed Cup success – five titles between 2011 and 2018 – has played her farewell match in Prague. However, she went out on her terms and in front of an appreciative crowd.
Originally, Safarova was scheduled to take her final bow at the Australian Open in Melbourne last January. However, she was forced to withdraw from the year’s first major due to wrist tendinitis. So, the resident of Monte Carlo decided it would be appropriate to come back to play one last time in front of her home country fans in Prague.
Safarova previously hoisted the Prague Open trophy once in 2016. It was the most recent and last of her seven singles titles, when she defeated Sam Stosur of Australia, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, in the final.
Although Safarova enjoyed success as a singles player – reaching as high as No. 5 in the world – after turning pro in 2002, she will be remembered for her achievements playing doubles. Along with Mattek-Sands, the Czech-American duo – affectionately known as “Team Bucie” – won 11 titles together between 2015 and 2017, including five Grand Slam titles. They were ranked doubles World No. 1 in 2017. The duo originally planned to reunite in Prague, but Mattek-Sands has been sidelined much of the year while recovering from a knee injury. Instead, Safarova, still ranked No. 69 in doubles, reached out to Stefkova.
Prior to Prague, Safarova and Stefkova had played together once and reached the final at Mallorca last year. Last week, Safarova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia advanced to the final of the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart before losing to Mona Barthel and Anna-Lena Friedsam of Germany, as part of her farewell tour.
After jumping to a 3-0 lead Tuesday evening, Safarova and Stefkova were broken three times during the 40-minute first set and lost 6-4. At 2-all in the second set, Safarova and Stefkova broke at 40-40 to take a 3-2 lead. Then, in the next game, they were broken at 40-40. The match was suspended and carried over.
When play resumed at 1:47 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, Safarova and Stefkova made quick work of winning the second set 6-4. In the tie-break, they jumped to a 3-1 lead and increased it to 5-2. Ninomiya and Sizikova narrowed it to 5-4 on their serve. Then, Safarova and Stefkova maintained their lead at 6-5 and broke twice to go ahead 8-5, needing just two more points to advance to the quarterfinals.
However, Safarova and Stefkova’s serve was broken twice and their lead was narrowed to 8-7. Ninomiya and Sizikova leveled the tie-break at 8-all, and Safarova and Stefkova earned a match point with a service break to lead 9-8. But it was denied and the score was evened at 9-all. Then, Safarova and Stefkova held for 10-9 and gained their second match point. But Ninomiya and Sizikova saved it for 10-all, and went ahead 11-10, gaining their first match point.
Safarova and Stefkova saved it for 11-all. Then, Ninomiya and Sizikova gained their second match point at 12-11, and finally closed it out to win 13-11 in one hour and 40 minutes. The resumption of play lasted 33 minutes.
Arguably, no Czech tennis player has enjoyed such great support in the Prague tournament as Safarova. The applause she received as she walked off the court was absolutely deserved. She will be feted one last time prior to Satuday’s singles final.
After Wednesday’s match ended, Safarova addressed the crowd gathered at Centre Court. She said, “Now I will be among you as a spectator. Thanks.“