BESANCON, FRANCE: Marion Bartoli made a triumphant return to the French Fed Cup fold, but it will take more than the excellence of the 28-year-old world No.14 and the inspiring captaincy of Amelie Mauresmo before France can start dreaming of emulating past glories in this competition.
Still, the return of the bobbing and weaving Bartoli after eight and a half years’ absence was a sight for sore French eyes, all the more so because she felt sufficiently inspired to produce some of her best tennis of the year in beating Kazakhstan’s Galina Voskoboeva 60 63 in just one hour and 12 minutes.
It gave France a flying start in its bid to avoid the drop to the hitherto unexplored depths of the Europe/Africa Zone Groups. And when Alize Cornet maintained the impetus by taking the first set against the Kazakhstan No.1 Yaroslava Shvedova, France could be excused for contemplating a quick return to their normal life in World Group I.
However, that was to underestimate the staying power of a player whose mother was a marathon champion, once winning a 100km international race, and the athletic Shvedova - “I’ve got good genes” - came back to win 26 63 62 to square the tie, although credit Cornet for saving five match points. The sad fact is though that the very personable young girl from Nice has now won just one of ten Fed Cup singles rubbers.
Bartoli showed once again that she can really pack a punch in her two-handed forehand and backhand. She had lost the opening match of her last three tournaments but Mauresmo had seen enough of her in practice to predict that she would rediscover her level in this World Group II Play-off tie in Bescancon and she was proved right.
However, Mauresmo did admit to being “surprised in a positive way”. As she said: “There were a lot of things that could have made it go tricky for her. Yes, the ranking of her opponent is not great compared to hers but the emotions of the occasion surrounding her comeback...she really handled it very well.”
Bartoli could not have been more focussed if she was wearing blinkers. The power, accuracy and outrageously good length of her ground strokes must have taken the tall Voskoboeva by surprise because the Moscow-born Kazahk had won their last meeting in Toronto two years ago in straight sets. Instead the match went the same way as their four previous meetings, which had all ended in straight set wins for Bartoli.
“It’s been a perfect day for me,” said Bartoli, who could be forgiven for looking a little apprehensive on the eve of her first tie since losing the decisive fifth rubber, a doubles with Emily Loit, in the 2004 Fed Cup final against Russia in Moscow. “I really wanted to go on court and play that match; I was so excited about it.
“I prepared extremely well since two weeks now – one week at home and one week here with my teammates and all my team around me. I felt great right away. I think the first set was the best I’ve played in a long, long time so it will be some really nice memories for me.”
Bartoli had left the fold under strained relationships with the French Tennis Federation but the appointment of Mauresmo as captain in succession to Nicolas Escude seemed to smooth the way for Bartoli’s return. Winning again for her country, though, was a bit special, she conceded.
“You can’t really separate the two [tournaments and Fed Cup] but when you win for your country it is an amazing feeling," she said. "But I think also that the huge matches I have played – a semi-final of a grand slam, the final of a grand slam – helped me to deal with the pressure and know what to do on the court.”
There was just a small blip in her performance at the start of the second set, but she never lost faith in her aggressive tactics. Evidence of that came in the eighth game when despite serving three double faults she still kept going for her second serves and in the end held serve before breaking Voskoboeva for a fifth time to seal the match.
The second rubber was a story of Cornet’s slowly crumbling serve, which from winning 70 per cent of points behind the first and 63 per cent behind the second, ended up with returns of 50 and 31 per cent in the final set. But more than that it was a case of Shvedova’s strong resolve simply to do better after the first set.
“I believed in Slava that she could turn it around,” said Dias Doskarayev, the Kazakhstan captain. “She can be more aggressive, she can be more consistent. I’m just thankful she didn’t panic.”
One thing is certain: Sunday’s battle between Bartoli and Shvedova will not be one for the faint-hearted.
Follow this tie as it happens: Live scores or Watch Live
Alize Cornet (FRA) - 20/04/2013
Captain Amelie Mauresmo (FRA) - 20/04/2013
Marion Bartoli (FRA) - 20/04/2013
Captain Dias Doskarayev (KAZ) - 20/04/2013
Yarolava Shvedova (KAZ) - 20/04/2013
Galina Voskoboeva (KAZ) - 20/04/2013