For a nation that reached the semifinals, or better, of the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas in six of the past seven seasons, it was not surprising that Russia found a way to do so again.
Such is the strength of Russian women’s tennis that even though they came to Belgrade with only one of their six players currently ranked in the Top 20, they still had what it took to beat two former No.1 players who were stepping into the World Group for the first time.
Twelve months ago, Serbia played its first ever Fed Cup tie at home and was watched by record numbers in the Belgrade Arena. I vividly remember the joy on so many faces, especially the players themselves, as Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic took it in turns to dismiss the best Japanese.
They followed that up with an emphatic victory away to Spain in the World Group Play-offs, so fully deserved to take their place this year among the game’s elite.
But playing as part of a team only happens intermittently on the professional tour. For the most part it is a highly individual sport and one which, if things are not going well, can quickly expose any frailties and sap a player’s confidence.
So it proved for Ivanovic who is clearly struggling right now to deal with the pressure of being a superstar in a slump. Things have hardly gone smoothly for the popular 22-year-old since she topped the rankings after winning the French Open in 2008.
She openly admitted after this weekend’s successive singles losses and defeat in the deciding doubles that she is struggling mentally.
Poor starts against Svetlana Kuznetsova and Alisa Kleybanova only added to the pressure Ivanovic felt, and although there were glimpses of the talent which made her a world beater, there was a worrying lack of consistency whenever she was on court.
Hopefully, the appointment of a new full-time coach, which I understand is on the cards, will help her turn things around.
Jankovic heroics not enough
Jankovic, on the other hand, turned up trumps after her late arrival following a back injury sustained at the Australian Open.
Showing no signs of that ailment, she fought valiantly on court, first in her remarkable recovery on Saturday against Kleybanova, and then in the first reverse singles on Sunday against Kuznetsova, to put Serbia just one win away from the semifinals.
The crowd’s response was terrific - as you would expect - but although she continued to battle to the last alongside Ivanovic in the doubles, their joined efforts could not cope with the Russians’ combined strengths of power, precision and athleticism.
Russia’s wily captain, Shamil Tarpischev, has often made crucial selections in guiding his Fed Cup and Davis Cup teams to so much success in the past decade. Once again, he made the right choices and changes in Belgrade, not least in asking his singles players to do doubles duty as well.
Having originally not named Kuznetsova in his squad, her late inclusion undoubtedly bolstered an inexperienced team and in Kleybanova he has backed a player who will have gained from her weekend under the spotlight in the Serbian capital.
Where others might have been crushed by losing the last 11 games in a row of her first ‘live’ Fed Cup singles match against Jankovic on Saturday, the charming 20-year-old bounced back brilliantly on Sunday to beat Ivanovic and then play her part in clinching the doubles. As Tarpischev had told me after Friday’s draw, Kleybanova is ‘very tough and psychologically stable’.
With such an abundance of riches to choose from, though, it remains to be seen whether Kleybanova or even Kuznetsova feature in the rest of Russia’s 2010 campaign. But one thing is certain, whoever Tarpischev takes to USA for April’s semifinal, his team will be very tough to beat.