For those who made it to the Pilará Tennis Club in Pilar, 50 kilometres outside Buenos Aires, there was noise in abundance and struggles against the odds in more than one way in this Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group II first round tie. The hosts, backed by the raucous 'Fed Cup Band', overcame a Japanese side which included three players higher in the singles rankings than Argentine No. 2, María Irigoyen; the fourth, Shuko Aoyama, is ranked world No. 36 in doubles.
In one way, then, this was a struggle for Argentina to overcome higher-ranked opponents, but in another sense, it was Japan's struggle against a surface on which they've won only five times in the last two decades in Fed Cup action (and three of those five wins came during their run to the World Group quarter-finals back in 1993).
For the organisers, the struggle was against the weather. Summers here in central Argentina are hot and humid, and by the weekend humidity was topping 80 percent, with downpours in the days before the tie and more expected over the weekend. Keeping the court playable was going to prove quite a challenge.
Somehow, though, the ground staff managed it, even when the heavens opened again on Saturday after the close of play.
During both days' play, the weather was unexpectedly kind, giving us plenty of tennis to enjoy; particularly on Saturday, when María Irigoyen beat Japanese No. 1 Kurumi Nara, ranked 108 places higher, in the second-longest known rubber in Fed Cup history.
It was a calculated move by Argentina captain María José Gaidano; deciding to pit Argentine No. 1 Paula Ormaechea against Japan's No. 2 nominated player Misaki Doi on the first day, she suspected that the clay surface would help cancel out the gulf in rankings with Nara and help Irigoyen to an opening win; so it proved, and Argentina ended Saturday with a 2-0 lead.
Argentina is conscious that their next tie, whomever their opponents, will be tricky.
“Anyone we play is going to be really tough. We know it's an amazing thing that we'll play the playoff for World Group I, but we're going to try to enjoy it. We earned this!” Ormaechea said after the tie.
In the local press conference, her and Irigoyen were still happy, with Ormaechea able to joke: “Can't we find a different list of opponents?!”' when one Argentine journalist read out their possible playoff opponents (USA, Slovakia, Russia, and one of Spain or the Czech Republic).
The band were in full voice throughout the tie, and all the Argentines voiced their appreciation for the support, with Gaidano explaining afterwards, “It's fifty percent, for us – and the other fifty comes from the players! I'm going to tell the [Argentine tennis] federation, ‘please, give me an aeroplane for the band’,” as she joked about an idea for a potential away tie.
“It wasn't a totally one-sided match,” Japan captain Yuko Kaneko opined afterwards. “The first two singles were really close... Ormaechea played really well today [Sunday], they were up 2-0, and obviously she was really positive.”
Next for Japan is a World Group II play-off tie against a Zone Group I winner. Those nations are Netherlands, Romania, Thailand and Brazil; Kaneko didn't express an explicit hope for a different playing surface, but did hope that if they're drawn to play away, “we can learn from this experience, and take it forward.”
Japan are perhaps unfortunate to have dropped to the World Group II play-offs in the space of just two ties, having been drawn to play away against two consecutive opponents – Spain and now Argentina – who are such clay court specialists.
What did the visitors make of the noisy local supporters' band (with whom they had their photos taken on court after the final match)? All of them smiled when I asked: “Obviously, they're cheering for Argentina, but I enjoyed it a lot, and the drum doesn't sound too bad,” Aoyama said after her and Fed Cup newcomer Risa Ozaki had claimed a consolation for a 3-1 final score in the series, by beating Ormaechea and Irigoyen 60 64 in the doubles.
As for Kurumi Nara, “It's the first time I've played [in front of] a crowd like this; this is the Fed Cup. It was good fun!”