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10 February 2014

Is Germany finally doing itself justice?


MATCH REPORT

By Chris Bowers

Photo: Dusan HeinThe German team

It’s been a long time coming, but Germany has finally made it to the semifinals of the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas. Nineteen years in fact, but should it really have taken so long?

When Andrea Petkovic burst onto the scene and broke into the world’s Top 10 late in 2011, she was the leader of a rising generation of German women players. Sabine Lisicki followed soon after, Julia Goerges joined them, and Angelique Kerber overtook them by reaching the US Open and Wimbledon semifinals. Add to that the experienced Anna-Lena Groenefeld who had moulded herself into a doubles specialist after ploughing a lone singles furrow for Germany for many years, and there was an impressive squad of players.

What’s more, they were all committed to playing for their country. Petkovic is particularly patriotic, having left her home in the Bosnian town of Tuzla when she was a toddler, and come to appreciate what Germany has given her throughout her childhood and early adulthood. Fed Cup is central to her tennis aims, and she finds her enthusiasm matched by her team mates.

Yet all five have suffered a series of injuries.

Petkovic was off the tour for two years with back, ankle and knee injuries, Lisicki had ankle and abdominal problems, and others have also spent a fair amount of time in the treatment room. Add to that a number of away ties, plus the pressure the German players put on themselves to succeed, and it becomes clear why this generation has not got close to fulfilling its Fed Cup potential.

But this year could be different. Petkovic’s win from match point down against Dominika Cibulkova on Saturday was the key to a very difficult away tie. That freed up Kerber to produce some of the best tennis she has played in a long time. The left-handed world No. 9 has talked about wanting to build more aggression into her counterpunching game, and she showed that against both Cibulkova and Daniela Hantuchova. This past weekend could be a turning point for both Petkovic and Kerber on the tour.

Another factor in the team is Barbara Rittner.

The captain is a quiet, understated presence who never lets herself get too carried away. She was a modest achiever on the tour, with a ranking that was normally somewhere between 30 and 100.

She won two singles titles and reached a career-high of 24, and that has given her a knowledge that is allowing her to fashion a team of players who have more natural talent than she had but who have yet to make the most of it. She is clearly both liked and respected by her players.

And while people make a lot of home advantage in Davis and Fed Cup, it isn’t always the easiest thing for team spirit. This tie took place in Bratislava, where all the Slovak players have a base. So they all stayed at home and came together by day, whereas the German team were holed up in a hotel together, which generates a much stronger team ethic. Maybe the run of away ties the Germans have had has been a good thing for strengthening their esprit de corps?

Australia, with choice of ground, await in the next round and is in a similar position to Germany – a former great women’s tennis nation that hasn’t been in a semifinal for 21 years, two more than Germany’s 19-year absence. But while the Aussies are heavily dependent on Sam Stosur, Germany has a squad of five, so the Germans could well start favourites.

2014 as the Fed Cup year for Germany? After this weekend and with the players Rittner has at her disposal and the team spirit she has engendered, you wouldn’t want to count it out.

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