BRATISLAVA, SLOVAK REPUBLIC: What a commodity momentum is when it comes to team tennis.
Slovakia came within one point of establishing a 1-0 lead over Germany, but when Andrea Petkovic bounced back from match point down to beat Dominika Cibulkova, she freed up her team-mate Angelique Kerber to play some of her most fluent tennis of the year to give Germany a shock 2-0 lead going into the second day of this first round World Group Fed Cup by BNP Paribas tie.
Having won a marathon first set against Daniela Hantuchova, Kerber eased through the second set to win by the brutal scoreline of 76(9) 61, but it was Petkovic’s 26 67(7) 62 win over Cibulkova which is the remarkable story.
Petkovic is the woman who launched the current boom in German women’s tennis with her run to ninth in the world rankings in 2011, but who has struggled with a catalogue of injuries in the past two years. Had Sabine Lisicki been fit, Petkovic might not even have played singles here, but she was called in to face the in-form Australian Open runner-up, and she hung with her just long enough to ride her luck and turn round a match that looked to be heading the Slovak’s way.
The 36 minutes it took Cibulkova to win the first set involved some scrappy tennis, with the Slovak finding some of the form she showed in Melbourne but not really stringing it together. Petkovic wasn’t playing badly, and admitted she told her captain Barbara Rittner after the first set that she was playing pretty well but was still outclassed. Rittner told her to go for her shots more, and if it didn’t work, just accept that she was beaten by the better player on the day.
The result was a turnaround that took a while to become apparent. Petkovic broke for 2-1 but was broken straight back, and had to serve twice to stay in the match at 4-5 and 5-6. But once the tiebreak started, so did the drama. Petkovic won the first five points, and led 6-1 with five set points.
Cibulkova then played six outstanding points, and had the crowd so energised that they screamed ‘out’ before the line judge on the 11th point of the tiebreak, prompting heated protests by Petkovic and Rittner.
With Cibulkova at match point at 7-6, Petkovic served to the backhand. It seemed a routine return for the Slovak, but she dumped it into the net. A minute later the Slovaks were up in arms about a line call, but they had no complaints when Petkovic won the set as a Cibulkova forehand went long.
Petkovic carried the momentum into the final set, breaking in the second and sixth games to serve for the match at 5-1. Cibulkova then played one of her best games of the match to break, but she couldn’t continue the run, and Petkovic ran out the winner.
"It was so emotional, so exciting," Petkovic said. "I’m just so happy it’s over. It was such an emotional journey for me. The second set tiebreak was crazy, it had everything in it, I was up, I was down, we had the umpire involved, but I came through it.
"I feel like my game is in place, that I’m playing better than I was when I was in the top 10, but I’m lacking the match practice, so I definitely think this could be a turning point for me in the season."
In the second singles, Hantuchova played a very good first set, while Kerber struggled to get into the match. But again the drama and the decisive points came in a tiebreak. Kerber had two set points that Hantuchova saved. Then Hantuchova had two that Kerber saved with some phenomentally deep hitting when right up against it. On Kerber’s third set point, Hantuchova hit a forehand long, and set was the German’s on an 11-9 breaker in 67 minutes.
At the time it seemed close, but that was the point at which Kerber relaxed and began playing some of her best tennis. Her serve, so often a handicap in recent weeks, started working fluently, and her retrieving was not only at its best, but there was an attacking edge to it. The 6-1 score was harsh on Hantuchova as there were a number of close games, but it confirms Kerber’s good start to the year.
And it sets up a mouth-watering first reverse singles on Sunday between Cibulkova and Kerber, one the Slovaks must win if they’re to have any chance of salvaging this home tie.
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Angelique Kerber (GER) - 08/02/2014
Captain Barbara Rittner (GER) - 08/02/2014
Daniela Hantuchova (SVK) - 08/02/2014