Revenge – Aussie style – is in the air at Kharkiv this weekend.
In 2007 it was the Ukrainian Fed Cup by BNP Paribas team that sent Australia, with its proud history in the event, spinning into zone competition – on the sunny Gold Coast, no less. And though they exude easygoingness, make no mistake: the Australians are intent on rejoining the elite eight with victory at this World Group Play-off.
While it is Ukraine’s turn to play host, the Aussies, with a surging Samantha Stosur at the helm, can even be considered favourites for the showdown at the Palace of Sports ‘Locomotiv’.
Indeed, while the prospect of playing a tie on an indoor clay court might have filled past Australian teams with dread, Stosur has emerged as an ace in the pack – on any surface.
A former world No.1 in doubles and a recent entrant to the Top 10 in singles, the 26-year-old has learned to make the most of her kick serve, powerful forehand and versatile backhand on the red stuff. She famously reached the semifinals at Roland Garros last year, and last Sunday lifted the trophy at Charleston on the green version of the dusty surface.
“I first played on clay when I was 15 and I hated it,” admitted Stosur, who finally arrived from the US on Thursday afternoon, narrowly making her connection in Vienna. “It’s taken a little time, but I think the way I play actually matches up quite well with clay, and in the last two or three years I’ve actually started to enjoy it.”
Big Time Debut For Rodionova
Against Spain in the World Group II in February, Stosur won both singles rubbers and the doubles with Rennae Stubbs, so pressure shouldn’t be a problem. More of an unknown quantity is 27-year-old Anastasia Rodionova, who has been tapped for the second slot.
Born in Russia, Rodionova was made an Australian citizen in December, and will be making her Fed Cup debut – period. It was a close call, however, given she is ranked just one place ahead of the experienced and resurgent Alicia Molik, both players sitting just inside the Top 100.
“Looking at the likely match-ups and recent results, we just decided this was the way to go,” said Australian team coach Nicole Bradtke, a former French Open semifinalist herself, and standing in for flight-delayed captain David Taylor at the draw.
“It’s been an interesting week for everyone, maybe not the best preparation, but we’re ready to get stuck in.”
Down a Bondarenko
For the hosts, much pressure rests again on the shoulders of Alona Bondarenko, who will open proceedings on Saturday against Rodionova.
Alona and her younger sister Kateryna can take much credit for lifting Ukraine into the World Group. Though the reward for their efforts was a first round tie right here in Kharkiv in February, they had the misfortune to run into Fed Cup dynamos Italy, falling to a 4-1 defeat.
A mercurial talent, twenty-fifth ranked Alona’s response this week will be fascinating.
She made a great start to the year, winning her second WTA singles title at Hobart and reaching the last 16 at the Australian Open. But after going 1-1 in singles against Italy – beating Schiavone but losing to Pennetta – the 25-year-old lost four opening matches in a row on the Tour. Things picked up with a third round showing at Charleston, but whether that has been a sufficient confidence boost remains to be seen.
“I feel good,” Bondarenko said. “I know Rodionova, we are friends. We haven’t played for a long time but I watched her match against Katya at the US Open. I hope it will be a good match.”
With 30th-ranked Kateryna sidelined since injuring her left knee at Dubai in February, the team’s no. 2 slot has been snapped up by capable 24-year-old Mariya Koryttseva, who is ranked just outside the Top 100 but has been as high as No. 50.
And despite Kateryna’s inability to play – she’ll be on hand to cheer - the Ukrainian team is not without a sister act: making their Fed Cup debuts this weekend are 17-year-old twins Lyudmyla Kichenok and Nadiya Kichenok, who are ranked No. 289 and No. 675 respectively.
The sisters are slated to play Sunday’s doubles against the formidable combination of Stosur and 39-year-old Rennae Stubbs - although team captain Volodymyr Bogdanov may change that if the rubber is live.
“Molik is very experienced, but having watched the Australians practice, I am not surprised they have chosen Rodionova. “I think her level is a little better right now.
“The court is soft,” he added with a twinkle in his eye. “Maybe it’s not our strongest team, but I still think we have the advantage.”
The full draw is as follows:
Alona Bondarenko (UKR) v Anastasia Rodionova (AUS)
Mariya Koryttseva (UKR) v Samantha Stosur (AUS)
Alona Bondarenko (UKR) v Samantha Stosur (AUS)
Mariya Koryttseva (UKR) v Anastasia Rodionova (AUS)
Lyudmyla Kichenok/Nadiya Kichenok (UKR) v Samantha Stosur/Rennae Stubbs (AUS)