Netherlands became the first country to earn a place in Sunday’s play-offs as they recorded their second successive victory in Europe/Africa Zone Group I on Wednesday.
The Dutch victory over Belgium, coupled with Croatia’s success against Luxembourg, guaranteed that Paul Haarhuis’ team would finish top of Pool A. They will go on to meet the winners of Pool D, in which the second round of matches will be played tomorrow.
It was also a day when the opening matches in Pool B provided some great entertainment for fans in the Syma Centre. Romania, the favourites, had to win a deciding doubles rubber to see off Hungary, while Britain beat Latvia thanks to hard-fought victories for Heather Watson and Johanna Konta.
Richel Hogenkamp, who had played only doubles matches for the Dutch team until last year, upset a higher-ranked opponent for the second day in succession to give her team a winning start.
The world No. 205 beat An-Sophie Metsach, the world No. 123, 75 63. After a tight first set Hogenkamp got an early break in the second and went on to complete her victory in style with a huge forehand winner into the corner.
Kiki Bertens beat Yanina Wickmayer 62 75, but only after a bruising second set. Wickmayer, whose game had gone awry in the latter stages of the first set, started hitting the ball with consistent power and went 5-3 up in the second, but Bertens clung on.
Having broken back to 4-5, Bertens won a marathon tenth game, saving set points in the process, and broke again to lead 6-5. When she served for the match the Dutch No. 1 was calmness personified.
“It’s fantastic,” Haarhuis said afterwards. “I’m thrilled. I think the girls played even better today than they played yesterday. They fought unbelievably well. The Belgian team is strong but our girls were fantastic.”
Croatia beat Luxembourg comfortably in the other tie in Pool A, Petra Martic and Donna Vekic winning in straight sets against Claudine Schaul and Anne Kremer respectively, but Iva Majoli’s team cannot finish ahead of the Netherlands because of the head-to-head rule. The same applies to Belgium, while Luxembourg have lost both their opening encounters.
Romania got off to a flier as Sorana Cirstea swept to a 61 60 victory over Reka-Luka Jani, who left the court in tears. Simona Halep, the world No. 10, was expected to win the second singles rubber, but Timea Babos turned the match around after losing the first set to win 16 75 63, to the delight of a noisy home crowd. It was Babos’ first victory over a top 10 player.
Babos said: “I tried to play aggressively, to move a lot, to get Halep out of her comfort zone. I’m very glad with this victory and thankful for this wonderful support by the Hungarian crowd. Every point was important. I needed permanent concentration to focus on every shot.”
Jani and Babos came out fighting in the doubles, taking the first set against Irina-Camelia Begu and Monica Niculescu, but the Romanian pair fought back to win the match 67 62 60, despite the great vocal support of the home crowd.
Watson, the world No. 162, had been fancied to get Britain off to a winning start when she met 16-year-old Jelena Ostapenko, but the world No. 705 proved a tough nut to crack. Ostapenko, who won six out of the seven Fed Cup rubbers she played last year, was soon 4-1 down but fought back with great spirit.
The Latvian had a break point at 5-5, but Watson held on and then took advantage of her young opponent’s nerves when she served to stay in the set. Although Watson struggled at times on her own serve she quickly took control of the second set. Having broken to lead 5-1 with a huge forehand return, the Briton went on to serve out for a 75 61 victory.
“It was a very tough match,” Watson said. “She’s a young, dangerous player. She’s a top junior and got to the quarter-finals in the juniors at the Australian Open. She’s a strong girl for only 16 years old.”
Konta beat Diana Marcinkevica 63 46 75 in a roller-coaster of a match. Marcinkevica, the world No. 216, went for her shots in the second set and then went 5-2 up in the decider.
Konta saved a match point with a service winner at 4-5 and made the decisive break in the following game. When Konta served for the match an ace took her to match point, upon which Marcinkevica hit a forehand long.
Earlier in the day Ukraine and Austria got their campaigns off to the perfect start, winning their opening ties in Pool C with a rubber to spare. Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina and Nadiya Kichenok got the better of the experienced Israelis Shahar Peer and Julia Glushko, while Austria’s Yvonne Meusburger and Patricia Mayr-Achleitner were too good for Slovenia’s Nastja Kolar and Masa Zec-Peskiric.
Kichenok, making her singles debut, beat Glushko 62 76. The 21-year-old from Dnipropetrovsk, whose only previous Fed Cup experience had been two doubles defeats, won the first set with something to spare, but the second was much closer. Kichenok saved five set points when serving at 4-5 and came from behind to win the tie-break 7-4.
“I’m very happy with the way I played today,” Kichenok said afterwards. “I felt comfortable on the court in the first set, but it’s not easy to keep concentration for the whole of the match. I used a lot of mental energy saving the set points.”
Svitolina, who beat Svetlana Kuznetsova last month en route to the third round of the Australian Open, was facing a 26-year-old veteran playing her 35th Fed Cup tie in Peer, but the 19-year-old quickly took command and won 61 64.
Svitolina was wearing face paint in the yellow and blue colours of her country. “I’m proud that I’m from Ukraine,” she said. “I’m trying to show it. I love my country.”
Mayr-Achleitner quickly put Austria in control, beating Zec-Peskiric 62 63. The Slovenian struggled to cope with Mayr-Achleitner’s serve, though she improved in the second set. Meusburger sealed the victory by beating Kolar by exactly the same score.
“Overall we were the better team today,” Clemens Trimmel, Austria’s captain, said. “It’s always nice to dominate from the start. We were a bit tired and nervous, which is normal at the beginning of a Fed Cup week.”
Captain Clemens Trimmel (AUT) - 05/02/2014
Captain Natalia Medvedeva (UKR) - 05/02/2014
Captain Amos Mansdorf (ISR) - 05/02/2014
Elina Svitolina (UKR) - 05/02/2014
Heather Watson (GBR) - 05/02/2014
Richel Hogenkamp (NED) - 05/02/2014
Petra Martic (CRO) - 05/02/2014
Kiki Bertens (NED) - 05/02/2014
Galina Voskoboeva (KAZ) - 05/02/2014
Nadiya Kichenok (UKR) - 05/02/2014
Yaroslava Shvedova (KAZ) - 05/02/2014
Captain Paul Haarhuis (NED) - 05/02/2014