BUCHAREST, ROMANIA: Not even pouring rain and the possibility of delays could dampen the electrifying mood ahead of Romania’s World Group II play-off against Serbia, a tie worthy of a title bout if the singles rankings of both teams are anything to go by.
Having played in the 2012 Final against Czech Republic, Serbia have been on a downward spiral since while the Romanians, driven by world No. 5 Simona Halep, burst into the upper tiers of world tennis after working their way from Europe/Africa Zone Group I in February.
ITF President Francesco Ricci Bitti acknowledged just how precious it was to have both teams at full strength in what should be a fascinating contest on an outdoor clay surface after Friday’s draw pitted Serbia’s Ana Ivanovic, the 2008 Roland Garros winner and former world No. 1, against Sorana Cirstea.
“Both teams are very well represented and I wish to thank all players for being here amid tough personal schedules on the tour and I am also grateful that both federations worked so hard to create the prerequisites for what should be an enthralling contest,” Ricci Bitti told a press conference.
World No. 12 Ivanovic may start as a slight favourite against Cirstea, ranked 15 places below her opponent, in Saturday’s opening singles rubber but Halep will certainly be a strong one when she locks horns with world No. 39 Bojana Jovanovski as Romania aim to continue their progress towards the pinnacle of the World Group.
“It took us 15 years to get out of the Europe/Africa Zone and we don’t want to stop now,” said Halep, buoyed by an outstanding run of form which included the Qatar Open title in February and reaching the Indian Wells semifinal last month.
“I have a lot of confidence after a great season last year and I am overwhelmed with emotions to play for my country at home for the first time. It will be a tough opening match against Jovanovski but I am optimistic about my chances because we will be backed by a patriotic home crowd.” she added.
Ivanovic takes on Halep and Jovanovski meets Cirstea in Sunday’s reverse singles before the potentially decisive doubles, where Romania’s Monica Niculescu and Irina-Carmelia Begu have been nominated against Jovana Jaksic and Nina Stojanovic.
Having endured many trials and tribulations since her 2008 French Open conquest, Ivanovic too was beaming with confidence after winning in Auckland and Monterrey already this year, the latter in an emotional final against close friend and compatriot Jaksic.
Back to her vintage best and looking like the hungry 20-year-old who romped to the summit of the WTA rankings in 2008 before a spectacular fall from grace, Ivanovic stressed just how important it was for Serbia to avoid the drop.
“I am very excited about playing first on Saturday, I spoke to Jovana about the schedule and this is what we hoped for,” Ivanovic said. “There is no doubt it’s going to be a tough tie but I am looking forward to my first match on clay this season.”
“Romania worked so hard to get this far but it’s also very important for us to stay up as we know only too well just how long and painful the road from the Europe/Africa Zone is. We travelled every inch of it en route to the World Group final in 2012,” she pointed out.
“Personally, it’s very encouraging to have won two titles in the same season for the first time since 2008. It has fired me up and given me the confidence for this weekend and the red clay season in general.”
Tennis fans in Bucharest can now only hope that the weather is kind to the tie as its appeal has forced even the local soccer derby between Dinamo and Steaua to take a back seat in daily conversation among the city’s dwellers.
The Arenele venue, which has a capacity of 4,460 seats, should be sold out for what Serbia team captain Dejan Vranes described as a clash of heavyweights. “It’s really a pity that one of these two teams will go down after this tie but the draw was unforgiving to both,” he said.
“On another day, this might have been a World Group first round tie or even a semifinal.”
His Romanian counterpart Alina Cercel-Tecsor added: “I am a little bit anxious for the tie to start.
“We are honoured to be in this position and I think playing at home will put the wind in our sails. It would be a huge accomplishment for the whole country to keep advancing towards the top tier.”
The full draw is listed below:
R1: Sorana Cirstea (ROU) v Ana Ivanovic (SRB)
R2: Simona Halep (ROU) v Bojana Jovanovski (SRB)
R3: Simona Halep (ROU) v Ana Ivanovic (SRB)
R4: Sorana Cirstea (ROU) v Bojana Jovanovski (SRB)
R5: Irina-Camelia Begu/Monica Niculescu (ROU) v Jovana Jaksic/Nina Stojanovic (SRB)
Follow this tie as it happens: Live scores or Watch Live