Austria put up a decent fight but in the end it was Ukraine who landed the knock-out blows in Europe / Africa Zone Group One.
Austria had to beat Ukraine on the final day of round-robin matches to finish top of Pool C, but Natalia Medvedeva’s team came from behind to win 2-1. Ukraine will go on to meet Romania on Sunday, the winners to advance to a play-off in April for a place in next year’s World Group II.
The day had begun with Austria needing a 3-0 victory to be sure of toppling Ukraine, though a win for Slovenia over Israel would have meant that a 2-1 victory would have sufficed. In the end Israel won 2-1.
Austrian hopes had soared when Patricia Mayr-Achleitner beat Nadiya Kichenok 62 64 in the opening rubber, especially as Slovenia’s Dalila Jakupovic was on her way to a 63 26 62 victory over Israel’s Julia Glushko at the same time.
However, Elina Svitolina, the rising star of Ukrainian tennis, then steadied nerves by beating Yvonne Meusburger 61 62 before Lyudmyla Kichenok and Olga Savchuk completed the victory by beating Mayr-Achleitner and Sandra Klemenschits 64 62 in the doubles. The Kichenok sisters had been the nominated pair, but the captain made a late and telling change as Savchuk’s experience proved crucial.
Medvedeva said it had been a tough group, full of close matches, and paid tribute to Svitolina for turning the concluding tie Ukraine’s way. “Elina is playing well and she did exactly what she had to do,” Medvedeva said. “She played a very smart game and stayed very concentrated.”
Mayr-Achleitner had sped through the first set against Nadiya Kichenok, though she met stiffer resistance in the second. From 4-2 down the Ukrainian levelled to 4-4 before Mayr-Achleitner re-established her authority.
After holding serve in the next game, Mayr-Achleitner then put pressure on her 21-year-old opponent with some bold returns. Kichenok was soon 15-40 down and on the first match point she hit a forehand beyond the baseline.
“It was a tough match, especially in the second set,” Mayr-Achleitner said. “I was a little bit tired, but in the end I was the better player.”
Svitolina, the world No. 39, is one place below Meusburger in the rankings, but the 19-year-old is making rapid progress and outclassed her opponent. Svitolina said afterwards that her performances this year at the Australian Open and in Paris had done much for her confidence.
“I’m really happy with the way I’m playing now,” she said. “I never feel any pressure. I just try to play my game and fight for every ball.”
Svitolina wore leg tape in Ukrainian yellow and blue, matching her face paint. “Our doctor brought some tape in our colours,” she said. “I just love to represent Ukraine and I am very proud of my country.”
Savchuk, having completed Ukraine’s victory in the doubles, expected to sleep well tonight on the eve of the play-off against Romania but added with a smile: “A few beers will help.”
Israel’s fortunes were turned around – as has happened so often in the past – by Shahar Peer, who beat Masa Zec-Peskiric 61 62 and then joined forces with Glushko to beat Andreja Klepac and Zec-Peskiric 64 75.
“Maybe it counted that I am a very experienced player in the Fed Cup,” Peer said. “I know what it means to go on the court when you are losing a tie 1-0. I played really well [in the singles] as the scoreboard shows.”
With Romania having already won Pool B, second place was at stake when Hungary met Great Britain. The home team, perhaps inspired by the courtside presence of Janos Ader, the President of Hungary, came from behind to win 2-1 after another remarkable performance by Timea Babos.
Babos was two points from defeat in the second set against Johanna Konta but went on to win 46 76 64. That victory levelled the tie, Heather Watson having earlier put Britain in front. The contest then went to a deciding doubles, in which Babos and Reka-Luca Jani fought another rear-guard action before beating Tara Moore and Jocelyn Rae 57 75 63.
Watson’s opening 64 61 victory over Jani was her third singles win of the week. The Briton’s aggression told in the second set as she went for her shots, winning points with a clever combination of big ground strokes and occasional volleys and drop shots.
“I thought it was the best way to play today,” Watson said. “She’s a very good retriever and was making me play lots of balls. Usually it’s me who’s trying to do that.”
Konta has been thrust on to centre stage this week as Britain’s No. 1 singles player in the absence of the injured Laura Robson and after Watson’s slide down the rankings. She looked in control after breaking Babos to lead 6-5 in the second set, but that was where her problems started.
Babos, who recorded her first victory over a top 10 opponent when she beat Romania’s Simona Halep earlier in the week, broke back to force the tie-break, in which Konta went into meltdown after going 5-1 up. At 5-5 Konta double-faulted horribly in going for a big second serve and on the next point she hit a return long.
After the third game of the second set Konta left the court for a medical time-out and returned with tape on her left leg. Babos made the only break of the deciding set in the fifth game, though she had to recover from 15-40 down when serving out for the match.
Babos was soon back on court with Jani to face Moore and Rae, the latter having been called up as a late replacement for Konta. The Britons took the first set and retrieved a break in the middle of the second before the Hungarians levelled the match by breaking Moore at 5-6.
At 3-4 in the deciding set, with Moore serving, the Britons played a poor game and were broken. Fittingly enough it was Babos who served out for victory, though she needed five match points before Jani ended the night with a winning smash.
Romania, who had already won Pool B, beat Latvia 2-1 but there is a slight concern about Sorana Cirstea, their second singles player. Cirstea and Halep, the world No. 10, were rested from the singles matches but started the doubles against Jelena Ostapenko and Darta-Elizabete Emulina. However, the Romanians retired after only five games because Cirstea was feeling unwell.
Earlier in the afternoon Irina-Camelia Begu beat Ostapenko 63 63, while Monica Niculescu beat Diana Marcinkevica by the same margin. Marcinkevica took a medical time-out in the first set because of a back injury and was clearly below par.