MOSCOW, RUSSIA: Russia completed the first comeback from 0-2 down to win a Fed Cup semifinal, as Slovak Republic were denied a place in a first final since winning the title in 2002.
After Maria Kirilenko's commanding performance in the opening singles, Ekaterina Makarova was drafted into the line-up, and won two consecutive 3-set-matches to see Russia home in a thrilling conclusion to this Fed Cup by BNP Paribas semifinal.
"She's amazing. We were joking that she's like a soldier," Makarova's doubles partner Elena Vesnina said in the afterglow of victory. "She has a bleeding knee and she won such an amazing match - one of the most emotional matches she has won. And then in the doubles, she was feeling tired, but she's a great fighter."
Maria Kirilenko got the ball rolling with an impressive 75 61 victory over Dominika Cibulkova to record, by some margin, her most significant Fed Cup victory.
But the comeback really gathered momentum when Russia's team captain Shamil Tarpischev decided to replace Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova with the slightly lower ranked Makarova for the second singles against Daniela Hantuchova.
Makarova had never beaten the 29-year-old, but has shown a taste for the big occasion at the Australian Open in each of the last two years, and won both the fourth singles and the decisive doubles to help Russia squeeze past Japan in January's quarterfinal.
And what a start she made, breaking Hantuchova in the very first game and using her powerful serve to good effect throughout a first set which she won 63. Both players were cagier and more erratic in the second set, but that just increased the excitement.
Hantuchova broke for 5-4, and she then had the nerve to serve out the set and level the match.
The shift in momentum was illustrated perfectly by the first point of the deciding set. Hantuchova did extremely well to reach a nicely cushioned volley, and the lob she flicked over the tall Makarova landed just inside the baseline. She secured the break with a running backhand crosscourt winner, but the drama was far from over.
Makarova battled back magnificently, and levelled the set at 4-all immediately after taking a medical time out for treatment to the knee and finger she had bloodied in a fall. Hantuchova's concentration wavered, and she was broken to love.
Makarova then held for 5-4, and within minutes had two match points. She missed both with errant forehands, as the Slovak captain Matej Liptak remonstrated with umpire John Blom about the noise during rallies. A third match point was saved after some sterling defensive work by Hantuchova, but the fourth was gleefully accepted when Makarova found the perfect forehand pass to close out the match.
"I am very happy that I fell down," she said, when discussing the medical time out. "I forgot the score when I came back, and (something) came back in my head. The crowd helped so much. Sometimes I just really enjoy playing, and it was a great fight."
Although the arena was again short of capacity, there was more fervent support for Russia on the second day, with more inflatable batons per square metre. As the crowd reflected on a stunning match, the captains considered their options for the doubles. Tarpischev opted to stick to his original plan and asked Makarova to play back to back matches with her regular, and formidable, partner Elena Vesnina. Hantuchova was also asked to come straight back onto court to reacquaint herself with Cibulkova, her partner at last year's Wimbledon and US Open.
They did brilliantly to win the first set 64: Hantuchova's angled backhand volley clinching the set after she had saved three break points on her own serve in the previous game. But the Russian pair dominated the second set and took it 63, giving us - at 9.30 in the evening local time - the finale the tie deserved.
It was competitive, but after the Slovaks failed to convert two break points in the opening game, ultimately one sided. Russia won 61, and the winning quartet were able to embrace on court in a dance of delight which had seemed so unlikely 24 hours previously.
Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina (RUS) - 21/04/2013
Dominika Cibulkova and Daniela Hantuchova (SVK) - 21/04/2013
Captain Matej Liptak (SVK) - 21/04/2013
Ekaterina Makarova (RUS) - 21/04/2013
Maria Kirilenko (RUS) - 21/04/2013