BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA: Argentina were made to work hard, but ended Saturday with a 2-0 lead over Japan in their Fed Cup by BNP Paribas first round tie on the clay in Pilar. Japan dug deep on a surface which is far from their favourite, but have it all to do on Sunday.
The paying public certainly got plenty of tennis for their money. The main story was María Irigoyen and Kurumi Nara starting proceedings with an epic first set which saw two breaks of serve on each side and was eventually won 6-7(7) by Nara. It was far from over, though; the match developed into the second longest known rubber in Fed Cup history (behind only Puerto Rican Vilmarie Castellvi's win over Aleksandra Wozniak of Canada in 2005), eventually ending three hours and 39 minutes after it had started.
Not only that, but the players had to deal with high temperatures and suffocating humidity, as much of central Argentina braces itself for oncoming storms. There were worries about how playable the court would be, but hard work by the ground staff at the Pilará club paid off, even though the players noted afterwards that it was inevitably slightly heavy underfoot after rain in the days before the tie.
With Nara serving first, it was six games before a break arrived in the first set, and when the Japanese No. 1 did edge into a 4-2 lead, Irigoyen immediately pegged her back with a break of her own in the very next game. The pattern was continued for the rest of the set; another three holds of serve followed by back-to-back breaks led to an exhausting tiebreak which Nara won 9-7.
In the third game of the second set, Nara looked to be edging ahead, and it seemed fortune was on her side as well when she hit the top of the net not once but twice during the rally which eventually gave her the game and another break of serve. Yet again, though, Irigoyen broke back to level the scores, before taking control of the set with a run (including that break) of four games won out of five, to take a 5-3 lead. Again Nara broke to make it 5-4, and again Irigoyen reponded with a break of her own – the fifth time in two sets that there had been back-to-back breaks – to level the scores at one set each.
Iriogoyen again had a strong run at the start of the final set, taking a 3-0 lead, before being pegged back to 3-3; the world No. 173 soon regained her composure, though, and saw off Nara – ranked 108 places higher – 6-4 in the final set. Argentina captain María José Gaidano had calculated that the clay court would be a great leveller, and so it proved.
Paula Ormaechea's subsequent victory over Misaki Doi 62 36 63 felt succinct by comparison, though she too was made to work hard by Doi, who adapted her game very well in the second set after being comfortably beaten in the first.
“In the second set she raised her game fantastically,” Ormaechea told local journalists in her press conference afterwards. “At the same time my own game dropped off. But I managed to pick it back up again and get the win.”
The hard-fought nature of both matches, and the conditions, took a lot out of all four players, and with Ormaechea back on court first on Sunday, against the comparatively fresher Nara, Gaidano might have to make some changes, should Japan dig in and pull a couple of singles wins out of the bag to take the tie to the doubles rubber, in which Ormaechea and Irigoyen are the players currently nominated to feature.
“We'll see tomorrow what happens,” she said. “I'll have to think what I'm going to do.”
With rain forecast for Sunday, Argentina will be looking to Ormaechea to claim the win in the first match and end the tie before the weather becomes an issue. One thing everyone learned from Saturday, though, is that Japan won't be willing to make it easy for them.
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Captain Maria-Jose Gaidano (ARG) - 08/02/2014
Maria Irigoyen (ARG) - 08/02/2014
Paula Ormaechea (ARG) - 08/02/2014