BRATISLAVA, SLOVAK REPUBLIC: The Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group II first round tie in Bratislava drew to a close when the French team earned a consolidation point in the dead doubles rubber, with Virginie Razzano and Kristina Mladenovic, a Fed Cup debutante, defeating Magdalena Rybarikova and Jana Cepelova 61 62 to round up the final score at 3-2 in favour of the home team.
The Slovaks had entered the tie as slight favourites and proved that, although Fed Cup has its twists and turns, the rankings in tennis still do matter. Matej Liptak thus could celebrate the start to his 4th year at helm of the national team with a victory and on top of that his girls finally managed to make home advantage count, having lost their last two ties on home soil.
However, Liptak admitted that the triumph did not come easy. “Well I knew it would be hard. I said at the start that France are a very strong team, with a lot of potential. I am glad that we won because I believe that we have a great team too and deserve to be playing for the elite tier.”
The only bump on the road to yet another play-off encounter seemed to have been the second rubber in which Virginie Razzano shocked Slovak No. 1 Dominika Cibulkova, leveling the score at 1-1 after the first day of action.
“You know the first day was tough, we were the alledged favourites and I guess this fact got to my girls a bit. They did feel the pressure on their shoulders and Razzano just played an amazing match. I am happy that Dominika managed to shake it off in a few hours and won the second point for us,” said Liptak.
It must have been hard for Liptak this weekend to fully concentrate on Fed Cup as his thoughts were certainly also with Lukas Lacko, who he coaches, as the top Slovak men’s player was appearing in his first ATP Final in Zagreb. “I was on the phone with Luky every day and kept sending him tactics in texts. He lost in the end but I guess it was a great weekend for Slovak tennis.”
When asked about the most positive moment of the weekend in Bratislava, Matej did not hesitate a second. “Certainly how we managed to fight. Daniela and Dominika were both in tough spots in their matches, but I am proud how they could hold their heads high and get out of any trouble they had got into.”
The Slovak No. 2 Daniela Hantuchova broke her five-match losing streak and naturally was beaming with joy, throwing smiles and cracking jokes all around the place. “It has been a great weekend, I won two tough matches, I played well and the crowd was sensational,“ she said.
“I love the whole atmosphere, playing for my country is always a privilege. I’m very lucky it’s been already so many years and one of the most wonderful moments I ever had was winning it for my country in 2002, and I hope that if I am healthy I will have another shot at lifting the trophy.”
Natually the French camp could not join the party. Trailing 2-1 and with their backs against the wall, captain Nicolas Escude took a calculated risk when he replaced Virginie Razzano, who defeated Cibulkova on day one, with Alize Cornet, a player with only one Fed Cup singles win to her name.
Escude admitted that this was a part of his game plan. “Yes, it was tactics. I know that Virginie played well last night, but I thought we might need her for the doubles and I wanted to give her a break to be fresh in the decisive rubber as I knew that if it came to that the Slovaks would have to stay with Daniela in the line-up. Anyway we had been thinking that Alize might play on Sunday, but I made the final decision just yesterday.”
Sadly for the 2001 Davis Cup champion the gamble did not pay off and Cornet, a former world No. 11, was incapable of punching above her weight as she lost to Hantuchova in straight sets. Both Liptak and Hantuchova agreed that it was a surprising call, but they could see why Escude had done it.
“I do understand this decision,“ said Hantuchova. “Alize is a player I do not like playing against, so I guess it was a reasonable move given the situation and the actual score.”
Liptak added: “Well the only problem was that we were told 15 minutes before Daniela stepped on the court. We had been talking about Razzano and suddenly it was a different player to play against. I had to pep talk Daniela as she was warming up in the corridor. Of course it took her a while to adjust the strategy accordingly, but I am glad that in the end she did.”
However, the Cornet-move was not the only change Escude had to make. Earlier in the week, Fed Cup rookie Kristina Mladenovic took the place of Aravane Rezai. When asked about the player that had left the team, Escude remained enigmatic. “I am sorry I can not tell you much, but Aravane has been going through hard times emotionaly and she had to leave the team.”
Whatever the story, one thing is crystal clear: France have a mountain to climb if they want to get back into the World Group and compete with the best teams once again. The era of Amelie Mauresmo and Nathalie Dechy has come to its irreversible end and with the absence of Marion Bartoli such a proud tennis nation as France are in need of some fresh talent.
However, Escude keeps the faith in his team. “We played a tie in World Group II against a team that features two Top 20 players, and all my girls pushed themselves to the limit and did the best they could. We shall not give up and soon you might find us in the top tier again.”
Slovak Republic and France are both awaiting the Draw for the World Group and World Group II play-offs, which is taking place in London on 14 February, to learn their next opponent. Slovak Republic are bidding for promotion, while France are hoping to avoid the drop to Group I.