Belarus will face the Netherlands in Sunday’s play-off finals in Europe / Africa Zone Group One after completing their second successive victory here today. Belarus did not drop a set in beating Portugal 3-0 and are now certain to top Pool D, whatever the result of Friday’s concluding matches. The Dutch have already won Pool A.
In Pool C, however, there is still plenty to play for. Although Ukraine recorded their second win in a row, holding off a robust challenge from Slovenia, the pool winners will be decided by Saturday morning’s final round.
Israel’s 2-1 victory tonight over Austria means that the latter are now the only team who can knock Ukraine off the top of Pool C. Israel could finish equal on points with Austria and Ukraine, but in such a scenario the number of rubbers won is decisive - and Israel cannot match Ukraine's total. If Israel beat Slovenia, Austria will have to beat Ukraine 3-0 on Saturday to top the pool.
Even without Victoria Azarenka, Belarus are proving a formidable team. Aliaksandra Sasnovich got them off to a good start by winning in straight sets for the second round in succession. The left-handed Maria Joao Koehler can be a tricky opponent, but was struggling with an abdominal problem and was beaten 63 64.
Olga Govortsova had won a marathon encounter with Turkey’s Cagla Buyukakcay two days earlier and was clearly in no mood to be detained so long by Michelle Larcher de Brito, who was beaten 61 63 in the second singles rubber.
Larcher de Brito, who is playing her first competitive matches of the year this week after injury, looked dispirited when she went 4-1 down in the second set but responded well to win the next two games. Govortsova quickly retook control, however, and after hitting a forehand long on her first match point was happy to see the Portuguese No 1 put a return in the net on the second.
“I didn’t want to have a really long match again,” Govortsova admitted afterwards. “It was a good thing that we had a day off yesterday because I really didn’t feel very well. I had some massages and did some recovery work, so that helps.”
Tatiana Poutchek, the Belarus captain, said: “I’m really happy that the matches weren’t as long as they were in the match against Turkey. It’s good that they won quickly and can stay fresh.”
With Belarus beating Portugal, the only country with a chance of denying Poutchek’s team a place in the play-off final were Bulgaria, who had to beat Turkey to keep their own hopes alive. Despite winning the opening singles rubber, however, Bulgaria lost 2-1 as the Turks battled back.
Isabella Shinikova had given Bulgaria a winning start, beating Pemra Ozgen 62 36 64. Ozgen played a defensive game, but her lobs, spins and drop-shots worked well only in the tight second set and there were times when her frustrations boiled over. Buyukakcay, however, kept Turkey in the contest by beating Elitsa Kostova 76 61 and the tie went to a deciding doubles.
Both captains sent their singles players into a doubles match which swung one way and then the other. The Bulgarians won a closely contested first set after a controversial line call, with the Turks convinced that Buyukakcay’s cross-court shot on set point should not have been called out.
Suitably fired up, Buyukakcay and Ozgen ran away with the second set and went 3-1 up in the third, only for the Bulgarians to fight back. However, from 5-3 down it was the turn of the Turks to launch another comeback as they completed a memorable 57 61 75 victory.
Ukraine had to work hard for their win over Slovenia, with both singles rubbers going to deciding sets. Nadiya Kichenok beat Dalila Jakupovic 46 64 61 before Elina Svitolina beat Nastja Kolar 63 67 63.
Jakupovic raised Slovenian hopes when she took the first set from 3-4 down, but Kichenok quickly stamped her authority on the next two. She led 4-1 in the second set and 4-0 in the third, although she never quite maintained her momentum.
“I couldn’t find my rhythm today,” Kichenok admitted afterwards. “I was trying to play too fast maybe. I didn’t give myself enough time to build my game. I made so many mistakes that made me less concentrated. But I’m happy that I was able to find my way back.”
The second singles rubber developed into a battle of wills as Kolar fought back in the second set, winning the tie-break 7-3. Svitolina’s class, however, told in the end.
The other match in Pool C became a late-night thriller as Israel fought their way back into contention after Patricia Mayr-Achleitner beat Julia Glushko 61 46 62 in the opening rubber.
Shahar Peer, a veteran of nearly 40 Fed Cup ties, levelled affairs by beating Yvonne Meusburger 75 63. At the end of a tense first set Peer kept her nerve. Serving for the set at 6-5, the Israeli No 1 kept hitting to a good length, forcing Meusburger into mistakes. From 30-15 down the Austrian hit a backhand long and then put a forehand in the net.
Meusberger recovered from 4-1 down in the second set, but from 4-3 Peer stepped up the pressure again. With Meusberger serving at 3-5 and 30-30, the Austrian made a crucial error, leaving a lob which dropped inside the baseline. On match point Meusberger attacked the net, only for Peer to crack a forehand winner down the line.
Peer felt a problem with her hamstring on the final point and immediately went off for treatment, but reappeared later to play alongside Glushko in the deciding doubles against Mayr-Achleitner and Tamira Paszek.
A match full of outstanding rallies and big hitting from all four players went to a final set. With Mayr-Achleitner serving at 3-5 the Austrians saved two match points but on the third Glushko hit a winning volley to clinch a 64 57 63 victory.
Both Israelis said they would enjoy their rest day on Friday. “I have no power left in my body,” Glushko said. “I had no energy at the beginning of the third set, but the team and Shahar really picked me up. I’m really happy that we won and can rest tomorrow.”
Amos Mansdorf, the Israel captain, paid tribute to his players. “The girls showed real spirit at the end,” he said. “They were very tired and a little bit hurt, but they fought very well and I’m very proud of them.”
Shahar Peer and Julia Glushko (ISR) - 06/02/2014
Patricia Mayr-Achleitner (AUT) - 06/02/2014
Captain Amos Mansdorf (ISR) - 06/02/2014
Nadiya Kichenok (UKR) - 06/02/2014
Aliaksandra Sasnovich (BLR) - 06/02/2014
Captain Johny Goudenbour (LUX)
Olga Govortsova (BLR) - 06/02/2014
Captain Tatiana Poutchek (BLR) - 06/02/2014
Captain Andre Lopes (POR) - 06/02/2014