The successors to a great generation always have a lot to live up to. So in this 50th year of the premier team competition in women’s tennis, it’s tough on the likes of the current American and Australian players to have the triumphs of their forebears trumpeted as part of the silver jubilee celebrations.
The same will apply one day to the generation of Czech players who succeed today’s golden generation. Journalists will ask wistfully whether the Czech team of their day can ever emulate the achievements of Petra Kvitova, Lucie Safarova, Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka.
The fearsome foursome of Czech tennis notched up another impressive win this past weekend, and by the time they play the semifinal against Italy in April, it will be three years since the Czech Republic last lost a tie (incidentally to Italy).
They could lose that one, especially as the Italians have home advantage, but there is a sense that this Czech team still has a lot of trophies left in it.
And so it was that Alicia Molik’s attempt to talk up her spirited Australian team ran into the wall of invincibility that is the current Czech four.
Molik was right to highlight the fact that the 4-0 scoreline doesn’t do justice to just how close some of the matches were. Of the nine sets played, five went to tiebreaks, and Sam Stosur had a set point in one match and a match point in another.
Molik was quick to defend her top player despite defeats to Safarova and Kvitova. "Sam lost to the leading Fed Cup player of the moment bar none in Petra," she said. "Petra’s record is something like 13 wins out of 14, and Sam very nearly beat her playing her best match for a couple of months."
Perfectly true, and the quality of tennis in the Kvitova-Stosur match was at times of the highest quality. But Stosur comes away having done nothing to allay the fear that she is vulnerable on the big points.
Against Safarova she had a 4-1 lead in games and a 6-4 lead in the first set tiebreak, but couldn’t convert them into winning the set. Against Kvitova she had a match point for a 62 64 win but couldn’t convert, and she played some great tennis from 0-5 down in the final set only to falter at 4-5 when she had something to defend. She can take confidence from the way she played, but not from the way she handled the big moments.
The weekend could ultimately be seen as a significant one for the Australians. Molik gave a Fed Cup by BNP Paribas debut to 16-year-old Ashleigh Barty, who the new Australian captain believes could become ‘a stalwart for us for the next 10 to 15 years’. Barty is the 46th woman to wear the green and gold of Australia in Fed Cup, ending a line that starts with Margaret Court, and includes Evonne Goolagong, Judy Dalton, Kerry Melville, Wendy Turnbull and Molik herself.
But if the Aussies are going to give themselves a chance to win the Cup for an eighth time, they’ll need a second singles player with a ranking in double digits. Casey Dellacqua is the second-highest Australian at 126, and the woman who played second singles, Jarmila Gajdosova, was ranked 168.
Ultimately the chances of another Aussie title may lie with fate keeping them clear of the Czechs. The Czech players have escaped from the historical shadow that the likes of Martina Navratilova, Hana Mandlikova, Helena Sukova and Jana Novotna cast over Czech tennis for two decades. They are now the ones whose achievements will hang over the future Czech players who are currently ballgirls.
It’s not just a good Czech team – comprising a player in the top 10, one in the top 20 and the world’s second-best doubles pair – but also a happy team. They enjoy spending time together, laughing, joking and shopping. Kvitova even plays for her country wearing earrings in the shape of lions modelled on those from the Czechs’ coat of arms.
It’s a great generation, and they have a chance to test themselves against the powerful Italians on clay in April.