WASHINGTON, November 12, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
When a Fed Cup by BNP Paribas tennis match lasts three hours, 44 minutes, both players deserve a great deal of respect. Not only for how they deal with the pressure of the moment, but also for how they handle the fine line that separates victory from defeat.
On Sunday, with long odds facing the United States, down 0-2 to host Czech Republic – and playing inside a capacity-filled, noisy O2 Arena in Prague – it would have taken three straight wins by the Americans to pull off a miracle finish. By winning the 2018 final, it would have meant a record 19th Fed Cup title for the United States. Instead, it was the Czech Republic’s moment to shine – and celebrate – under the tennis world’s spotlight.
“On paper, it’s 3-0, but it definitely wasn’t this way,” said Czech team captain Petr Pala, after his team’s victory that was sealed after the third rubber. “It was really a hard fight.”
When Katerina Siniakova beat Sofia Kenin, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5, in what turned out to be the longest women’s singles match of the year, the victory clinched the sixth Fed Cup title in eight years for the Czechs and it marked the 11th time they’ve lifted the champion’s trophy. It also ended a 33-year drought for the Czech Republic, which hadn’t beaten the United States in Fed Cup play since winning the title in 1985. The defeat meant the Americans would not repeat as Fed Cup champions. And, yet, without much star power in Prague – no Williams sisters, Sloane Stephens, CoCo Vandeweghe, or Madison Keys available to play – the United States still came away feeling successful. They pushed the Czech Republic to the limit instead of being pushovers.
3 hours and 44 minutes of epic #FedCupFinal action condensed into 1 minute for your viewing pleasure.
Enjoy 🤩 pic.twitter.com/J4y65Fgu7M
— Fed Cup (@FedCup) 11. November 2018
“Katerina had to dig very deep today, and also yesterday it was very important the way (Strycova) started,” said Pala. Strycova is Barbora Strycova, 32, who appeared in her 20th and final Fed Cup tie for the Czech Republic. Her gutsy performance during a three-set win over Kenin put the Czechs ahead 1-0 at the beginning of the tie on Saturday. “I’m happy that they were all closed the matches. They were just extraordinary. I would say it was unbelievable,” added Pala.
Imagine what it must have felt like for both Siniakova, who replaced an ill Petra Kvitova at No. 1 singles for the Czechs, as well as Kenin, who was only the third player to make her Fed Cup debut in a final for the United States – and was nominated to play No. 1 singles by team captain Kathy Rinaldi. One of their rallies lasted 30 shots, and one game – the fifth game of the third set – lasted 27 points and took 19 minutes to decide. A total of only nine points separated the two competitors. While Kenin hit more winners – 42 to 24 – than Siniakova, she also committed many more unforced errors by a wide margin, 76 to 43.
“I think during most of the match, Katerina had the upper hand,” said Pala, “but Sofia always, always came back and suddenly, we were facing two match points. So, it was really close, and you can see it’s very hard to win a point against her.”
By the time that match point was secured by Siniakova, after Kenin hit her final forehand return wide left of its intended mark, the 22-year-old Czech threw her hands into the air, and for a brief second covered her mouth – not sure whether to laugh or cry – then, raced to her bench where she was mobbed by her teammates and hugged by captain Pala. Siniakova returned to the court where she waved and smiled, and blew kisses to the crowd. Eventually, she received congratulations from her fallen opponent, Kenin, after the 19-year-old Fed Cup rookie – her heartstrings tugged upon by both Siniakova and the Czech fans for nearly four hours – broke into tears and was consoled by her U.S. teammates and captain Rinaldi as she sat down at her bench.
Siniakova was asked about what her tie-clinching victory over Kenin meant to her. “It was an amazing for me. So many ups and downs,” she said. “I just want to thank the team and all the fans who were there. They were just amazing, cheering me at a home match. It’s unbelievable for me at the end that I won.
“I cannot imagine a better finish for the season. I’m just really happy.”
During the American’s post-match press conference, Kenin was asked to describe her feelings about the match. She chose to look at her loss positively. “It was obviously a really close match, and we were both pretty emotional after. When we were walking on court, we were also, like, crying so. … I mean, it was a long match. Really, a lot of effort, long points. We fought hard until the end. It’s disappointing for me, because I had two match points that could have turned things around. But I fought my hardest and literally did everything I could.”
In her two rubbers, against Strycova and Siniakova, Kenin spent a total of six hours and 27 minutes on court. She may have arrived in Prague as a Fed Cup rookie, but she’ll leave a seasoned veteran.
During the emotionally-charged trophy presentation, still in tears, Kenin received a very deserving standing ovation from the mostly-Czech crowd that filled O2 Arena for the final. They understood what she had just endured.
“I’m just proud of the way I competed,” said Kenin. “I fought until the end. I never gave up. I knew I could do it, and even like when I was down, I still was fighting out there.”
Rinaldi was asked what her overall takeaways from this week were, despite the Americans not being successful in defending their Fed Cup title won last year against Belarus. She said, “This week has been an amazing week, with all four players.” Collectively, Kenin, Alison Riske, Danielle Collins and Nicole Melichar had one tie of Fed Cup experience between them before the final. “They’ve really bonded, and the team atmosphere was incredible. I couldn’t be more proud, really. We did not get the result that we wanted, but nobody can say that we didn’t leave it all out there.
“That match today – both girls, both players – was incredible. I’m so honored to have been a part of that match. They really fought hard. The points were incredible. It’s just something I’ll never forget.”
“I couldn’t be more proud. We did not get the result that we wanted but nobody can say we didn’t leave it all out there.” #TeamUSATennis captain Kathy Rinaldi reflects on today’s match and the week with Team USA. https://t.co/Mp7WW7jY8B pic.twitter.com/h82cHewIMb
— USTA (@usta) 11. November 2018
Fed Cup notes
• The Czech Republic and the United States will be the top two seeds in the 2019 Fed Cup World Group, beginning next February 9-10. No. 3 Belarus and No. 4 France complete the seeded teams. Rounding out the eight-team World Group field are Australia, Belgium, Germany and Romania.
The Czech Republic will begin defense of its 2018 Fed Cup title against Romania in Ostrava, Czech Republic, on an indoor hard court. Meanwhile, runner-up United States will host Australia in Asheville, North Carolina, also on an indoor hard court. Other first-round pairings include: France vs. Belgium at Liège, Belgium; and Belarus vs. Germany at Braunschweig, Germany. Both ties will be played on indoor hard courts.