The Czech Republic have claimed the Fed Cup for a second consecutive year, with a dominant display in front of sizeable home support in Prague’s O2 Arena.
With Lucie Safarova and Petra Kvitova securing opening day wins against Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic respectively, the home side could not have got off to a better start.
Serbian belief didn’t diminish, however, and for a brief period there were hopes of what would have been a quite staggering comeback. Despite playing poorly in her opening match, Ivanovic produced an upset in the final’s third rubber, defeating Kvitova in straight sets.
After leading the Czechs to glory in last year’s final, there was a lot of pressure on Kvitova’s shoulders. The 22-year-old had been forced to withdraw due to illness during her previous two tournaments, and on-court coughing and shortness of breath indicated that she was still some way short of full fitness.
During her opening rubber against Jankovic, there were few signs that Kvitova was allowing ill health to affect her level of play. And credit must be given to Ivanovic – the only member of her team to win a match against the largely dominant Czechs – who raised her game significantly on the second day to inflict defeat upon Kvitova.
The event was made all the more enjoyable by the magnificent Czech supporters, who packed out the O2 Arena and were in good voice throughout.
Serbian fans were by no means anonymous either. They made up for being smaller in number with the volume of their support. But every time the Serbs came close to matching their hosts, the Czech supporters became that little bit louder; all contributing to a wonderful atmosphere.
R1: Lucie Safarova vs Ana Ivanovic
Safarova did not have a great record in the Fed Cup, having won only six of fifteen singles rubbers, prior to this year’s final. This included two losses in last year’s final, requiring team-mate Kvitova to win both of her matches.
Given Kvitova’s poor health this year, immense pressure was placed upon Safarova. Helping her country start well was vital. Not only would doing so decrease the reliance on Kvitova, it would ensure that the team had the full vocal force of the home crowd behind them.
There was an edgy start to the rubber, with all of the first three games going to deuce. Safarova admitted after that she felt nervous, and Ivanovic wasn’t absorbing the pressure of the occasional well either.
Although Safarova broke in the third game of the match, she failed to consolidate, before Ivanovic went on to hold her own service game to love. The Serb was unable to establish any momentum, though, as Safarova fought back from 0-30 down to take the sixth game.
Safarova, in particular, was now appearing more composed and in the seventh game of the match broke Ivanovic once more. This time, it was an advantage she wouldn’t lose.
Barring a double fault on her first set point, Safarova was showing few signs of breaking down, and served out to take the opening set.
Hoping to turn round the match in the second set, Ivanovic didn’t start well. Broken in her opening service game, the former French Open champion soon found herself 0-2 down.
A lengthy seventh game lasted over nine minutes, during which Ivanovic was forced to save four break points, before eventually holding.
Another game of similar length followed – this time it was Safarova’s turn to save set points before to emerging unbroken.
The next game went to deuce too, but this time Safarova got the better of her opponent, wrapping up the opening rubber for the Czech Republic.
R2: Petra Kvitova vs Jelena Jankovic
Whilst possessing completely contrasting styles of play, there is a similarity between Kvitova and Jankovic. Both have proven capable of digging deep and playing some of their best tennis when representing their respective nations. It was therefore no surprise that the two settled much quicker than their compatriots had in the opening match, with both players appearing confident and composed.
Unlike the previous rubber, the first three games passed quickly. Both players were serving well, with only one point won by the receiver during this period.
The relatively business-like nature of the encounter wasn’t to last, however. A double fault from Kvitova helped Jankvoic on her way to a break of serve. The Serb then held to win her third game in a row, establishing a 4-2 lead in the process.
Having been forced to withdraw from the end-of-season WTA Championships the previous week with bronchitis, it appeared as if Kvitova was struggling. She was taking a long time to recover between points and looked some way short of full fitness.
At this point, there were plenty of reasons for Czech fans to be concerned. But any sense of apprehension was misplaced, as Kvitova went on to stage a remarkable turnaround, winning ten of the next eleven games to claim victory.
Visibly, the symptoms of ill health were still present, with Kvitova often coughing and appearing short of breath. Yet this didn’t seem to be affecting her tennis. Rather than look to finish points quickly, the Czech was happier to engage in rallies the longer the match went on.
Although Kvitova was taking a long time between points, the level of her tennis meant that the Czech Republic team had every reason to feel confident, as they established a 2-0 lead in the tie.
R3: Petra Kvitova vs Ana Ivanovic
During the opening day, these two players had reacted to the occasion in very different ways. Kvitova was buoyed by home support to the point that she appeared able to play through illness largely unaffected. Ivanovic, on the other hand, appeared overawed by circumstance, losing a match many had expected her to win.
Given the performances and general demenours of both players on the opening day, belief was growing that Kvitova could seal victory in the first rubber of day two.
Despite Kvitova starting the match with a double fault, the first four games went by on serve. Surely it would only be a matter of time before the Czech asserted her authority on the encounter.
Yet in the fifth game of the match, Ivanovic broke her opponent’s serve relatively comfortably. And then once more in the ninth game, Kvitova was broken and the set went the way of Serbia – albeit with the Czech battling to save six set points.
The second set didn’t begin as positively as Kvitova will have been hoping for, with umpire Alison Lang calling the 22-year-old for a time violation. Under Fed Cup rules, only 20 seconds are allowed to elapse between the ball going out of play and being struck to start the next point.
It hadn’t gone unnoticed yesterday that Kvitova, who was struggling to recover between points, was taking much longer than the permitted time. This was once again the case today, although it is worth noting that the average time between points was over 20 seconds for both players at the time Lang made her call.
Given the immense noise in the O2 Arena, umpires were understandably applying discretion when assessing potential time violations. But Kvitova was taking an average of 33 seconds between points – 8 seconds longer than Ivanovic, so Lang felt that she had to act.
Although Kvitova held this particular game, she was broken the next time she came out to serve. But it wasn’t the time violation call that was proving decisive. The difference was being made by Ivanovic’s impressive serving, often considered a weak area of her game. During the match, the Serb won an impressive 84% of the points played off her first serve.
The only minor misdemeanour on Ivanovic’s serve came when she failed to serve out the rubber at 5-3. But there was to be no late reprieve for the Czechs, as three games later Ivanovic broke Kvitova to secure a well deserved win.
R4: Lucie Safarova vs Jelena Jankovic
Coming into the tie, Safarova had only won six out of fifteen singles rubbers. And there were still memories of last year’s final, when the Czech number two lost both of her matches.
The Czech Republic could take little comfort from the head-to-heads either, with Safarova having lost five out of her six matches against Jankovic. The solitary win came on clay, requiring three sets of tennis to complete.
What had appeared likely to be a near-certain triumph for the Czech Republic was now looking increasingly marginal, with Serbia given renewed hope that they could claim the Fed Cup for the first time in their country’s history.
Whilst Safarova had coped well with the pressure in her opening rubber, there were still doubts as to how she would hold her nerve. The 25-year-old had a first Premier 5 final appearance in sight earlier this year, at the Rogers Cup. She was 5-1 up in her semi-final against Li Na and only three points from victory, but still went on to lose the match.
But what, on parer, was set to be a tough battle played out as anything but. Safarova was exceptional, producing tennis that was a class above anything Jankovic managed to come up with. Rather than wilt under the weight of expectation, the Brno-native excelled, looking like a player comfortably able to mix it with the very best in the world.
For her part, Jankovic was stunned; unable to find any answers and comprehensively outplayed. Although the 27-year-old has been some way short of the level that saw her reach the 2008 US Open final for some time, Jankovic has nonetheless been a great servant of her nation, possessing an excellent Fed Cup record. Her commitment cannot be questioned – the Serb came up against an inspired opponent today.
Few would have expected anything other than aggressive play from Safarova, but crucially there were no streaks of bad form to be found in the performance. She hit 32 winners during the match, whilst making only 11 unforced errors (four less than her opponent, who managed only eight winners).
Safarova supreme in Prague
Following Safarova’s win to put the Czech Republic 3-1 up, there was no need to play the doubles rubber. But even though their time was spent cheering on team-mates from the sidelines, the contribution of Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka shouldn’t be forgotten.
The Czech pairing reached the doubles semi-finals of the Australian Open and the French Open, as well as the finals of Wimbledon, the Olympics and the US Open. Although they failed to take the title on all three occasions, Hlavackova and Hradecka had done enough to be ranked second in the Race, earning a spot at the prestigious WTA Championships, where once again they finished runner-up.
The mere presence of Hlavackova and Hradecka on the Czech bench heaped extra pressure on Ivanovic and Jankovic. Beforehand the Serbian team admitted that should a doubles rubber be needed, the Czechs were clear favourites.
With Kvitova still recovering from bronchitis, Safarova needed to step up in Prague, and there can be no doubt that she did exactly that.
Safarova dismissed Ivanovic confidently in the opening rubber, a victory which Kvitova said lessened the pressure on herself. With the Czech Republic 1-0 up, the 2011 Wimbledon champion was able to focus on battling through illness, as she beat Ivanovic in the opening match of the final.
Fittingly enough, however, it was the best performance of the tie that won the trophy, as Safarova produced indomitable tennis against Jankovic. The 25-year-old said that it was the best she had ever played in the Fed Cup, describing the encounter as one of the top five performances of her career.
The back-to-back Fed Cup wins for the Czech Republic are no fluke. There is strength in depth within the country, with 11 players in the top 125 of the WTA singles rankings and 14 players in the top 118 of the WTA doubles rankings.
It is little surprise that the Czech Republic also top the ITF’s Fed Cup rankings, which are based over a rolling four-year period.
With a fully-fit Kvitova, an on-form Safarova, and the continued success of Hlavackova and Hradecka, the Czech Republic’s winning run could continue for some time to come.Permalink →