The Netherlands, Belgium, Belarus and Portugal drew first blood as the Europe/Africa Zone Group I matches got under way on Tuesday.
With the Dutch upsetting the world rankings to beat Croatia and the Belgians holding off a dogged challenge from Luxembourg, the two great rivals will meet tomorrow in what looks likely to be a crucial encounter in Pool A. Belarus, meanwhile, edged out Turkey as Portugal saw off Bulgaria in Pool D.
Croatia’s Petra Martic and Donna Vekic had been the favourites to win their singles rubbers in the opening tie on Centre Court in the Syma Centre, but in Richel Hogenkamp and Kiki Bertens they came up against opponents at the top of their game.
“I’m very happy with the way they played and the way they competed,” Paul Haarhuis, the Dutch captain, said afterwards. “In the rankings we weren’t favourites but we always thought we had a chance.”
Hogenkamp, the world No. 205, gave the Dutch a flying start, beating Martic, the world No. 104, 46 75 75. Martic led by a set and 3-1 but Hogenkamp kept her nerve. The Dutchwoman went on to lead 6-5 in the second set and then took advantage of a poor service game by Martic, who double-faulted on set point, to level the match.
The deciding set was tight. Martic appeared to have taken back the momentum when she broke to lead 4-3, but Hogenkamp immediately replied in kind. When Martic served at 5-6 and 15-15, Hogenkamp hit a superb winning lob. Three points later, on her first match point, the Dutchwoman hit another fine lob and then completed victory with a smash.
Hogenkamp, who had played only doubles matches for the Dutch team until last year, described it as her best win in singles for the national team. “The first set was very close,” she said. “I lost my serve only once and I didn’t have any chances to break her. But Paul, my captain, was telling me that my chances would come because it was so close. I was just hanging in there and believing that the match could turn around.”
Bertens, ranked 17 places below Vekic at No. 124 in the world, took command against the teenager from the start, making two early breaks. Vekic played better in the second set but dropped served at 3-3 as Bertens pressurised her into mistakes. The Dutch No 1 served out to complete a 62 64 victory. Bertens and Michaella Krajicek then teamed up in the doubles to beat Martic and Darija Jurak 75 62 to round off a 3-0 victory.
Belgium, who are playing at zonal level for the first time in 19 years after dropping out of the World Group, also made a good start. Alison van Uytvanck lost all of her matches last year, but opened here with a 61 67 61 victory over Claudine Schaul. While Schaul tried to attack the net, Van Uytvanck’s baseline game was too strong. Schaul recovered well to take the second set, but was overwhelmed again in the third.
Yanina Wickmayer sealed the Belgians’ victory with a 64 64 win over 38-year-old Anne Kremer, who is now ranked outside the world’s top 1,000. Wickmayer was made to work for her win, but her pressure eventually forced Kremer into more and more errors. Wickmayer and An-Sophie Mestach beat Schaul and Kremer 62 62 in the doubles.
The Belgium captain, Ann Devries, said: “I’m happy with the win. We had two top players in [Kim] Clijsters and [Justine] Henin, but still we have some good players in our country.”
Belarus are again without Victoria Azarenka, but Aliaksandra Sasnovich and Olga Govortsova found a way past Turkey’s Pemra Ozgen and Cagla Buyukakcay. Ozgen, a stylish performer with an elegant one-handed backhand, dropped her opening service game but always pushed Sasnovich hard.
In the end, however, the Belarusian’s powerful ground strokes won the day, Sasnovich completing a 64 63 victory in appropriate fashion with a big backhand winner down the line.
The next match proved to be the day’s outstanding encounter. Govortsova’s big game looked likely to prove too much for Buyukakcay, but the Turkish No. 1 played one of the matches of her life before going down 75 36 76. Defying a gap of 74 places in the rankings, the world No. 172 hit some superb passing shots and showed great determination to stay in the rallies.
Buyukakcay looked the stronger player in the closing stages. Govortsova appeared exhausted by the end and was having her legs massaged at every changeover.
Govortsova took the first set after saving two set points when serving at 4-5 but soon trailed in the second as Buyukakcay went 4-1 up and then served out to level the contest. Buyukakcay had three match points when Govortsova served at 3-5 in the decider and another in the following game.
When Buyukakcay had to send for the trainer after suffering a nosebleed at 5-5 it seemed her day might be over, but she broke once more, only to fail to serve out for the match for a second time. Buyukakcay led 5-4 in the tie-break, but Govortsova won four of the last five points, eventually clinching victory with a forehand winner.
“That’s the first time I played her and I think she played unbelievably,” a weary Govortsova said afterwards. “If she plays like this I think she can make the top 50. It was a really tough match, really long. I was just fighting, trying to get back in the match in the third set.
“My legs were starting to get really tired in the third set. But sometimes in a really close match all the pain goes away when you get excited.”
The teams in Pool D appear quite evenly matched, which was demonstrated by two tight singles matches as Portugal beat Bulgaria. Maria Joao Koehler lost the first set of the opening rubber against Isabella Shinikova, recovered to level the match and took command from 3-3 in the decider. With the Portuguese bench offering loud encouragement, Koehler sealed the match with an excellent lob, winning 36 61 64.
“I never gave up, I made it,” Koehler said afterwards. “I knew if I was focused, I could win. I believe that Portugal can play in the play-off to go up. There are very good teams here, but we also have a good team, so we are going to fight for our goal.”
Michelle Larcher de Brito sealed the victory for Portugal by beating Elitsa Kostova 46 62 76, but once again it was a close match. Larcher de Brito failed to take two match points before converting her third, winning the tie-break 7-3.
The Bulgaria captain, Dora Rangelova, said: “I’m a little bit disappointed but happy too, because my players did very well during the two two-hour-battles. This competition is very tough. The slogan says: ‘It takes more to play Fed Cup.’ I hope we can beat Turkey or Belarus. We will see what happens.”
Richel Hogenkamp (NED) - 04/02/2014
Captain Ann Devries (BEL) - 04/02/2014
Captain Paul Haarhuis (NED) - 04/02/2014
Captain Judy Murray (GBR) - 04/02/2014
Kiki Bertens (BEL) - 04/02/2014
Captain Iva Majoli (CRO) - 04/02/2014
Yanina Wickmayer (BEL) - 04/02/2014
Captain Levente Baratosi (HUN) - 04/02/2014
Maria Joao Koehler (POR) - 04/02/2014
Olga Govortsova (BLR) - 04/02/2014