'S-HERTOGENBOSCH, NETHERLANDS: This is what the Dutch tennis association boss Rolf Thung had said he hoped would happen: a thrilling, dramatic encounter against a solid opponent that revitalised Dutch tennis fans’ interest in their Fed Cup team. The last time a Dutch women’s team played in the Netherlands was in 1999, when Brenda Schultz-McCarthy was still playing.
The small but excitable crowd in Den Bosch will remember the tie’s best match – Kiki Bertens’ show of will and skill to beat Japan’s tough No. 1 Kurumi Nara. Hampered by cramps from the beginning of the third set and having failed to convert four match points in three games, Bertens engaged the crowd the way Martin Verkerk, Raemon Sluiter, and her current team captain Paul Haarhuis did in Davis Cup to close the match at last.
"The people who saw Kiki’s win will surely be back for more," said Paul Haarhuis. "And they will tell their friends and family about this match. So I think there’s a good chance more people will show up at the next tie. It would be very helpful if we get a home draw."
If that happens, the Dutch crowd will certainly be able to warm to Bertens, an emotional and talkative player who knows how to get the crowd behind her when she needs it.
The other prospective singles player, Arantxa Rus, is of a different, more introverted, kind. She barely connects to the crowd and when she faces the media she says little more than absolutely necessary. As Boris Becker might have put it: Bertens plays tennis; Rus works tennis.
Some say her introversion hampers her game but it can equally be said that Rus won’t let anything that happens off court influence what happens on court. And while the player might keep her emotions to herself, her game is positively entertaining. A huge serve and commanding forehand make for enjoyable viewing. Weaker points may be her footwork and lack of variation but both are skills that can be learned.
In short: both Bertens – with her whopping groundstrokes – and Rus have the tools to upset a big player from a bigger tennis country than the Netherlands.
It led the usually realistic captain Haarhuis to show some careful optimism: "We’re now back in the World Group II. This is more than the [Dutch tennis association’s] board and I hoped for, to be honest, when they asked me to become team captain. But if Kiki and Aran[txa] become more steady in their performances every country will actually find us hard to beat."
For the Japanese, it’s now back to Asia/Oceania Zone Group I. After a somewhat disappointing loss against Argentina, captain Yuka Kaneko could live with this weekend’s defeat against the Dutch.
Yes, her players were higher-ranked than the Dutch. Yes, Kurumi Nara could have taken the third rubber against Kiki Bertens – it was a close game, after all. And yes, Misaki Doi had a chance to go up 3-0 up in the first set against Rus, which might have set her on course to level the tie.
But then again, Rus simply outplayed the obviously talented but somewhat inconsistent Doi for the rest of the match. And overall, there hadn’t been any truly bad performances, bad choices, or missed chances for Kaneko to rue. The result might have disappointed, but the process hadn’t.
"If we keep going like this, I’m happy enough," Kaneko said softly, with the Dutch VIP guests’ party music thumping in the background.