Australia will be restored to the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group in 2011 after Samantha Stosur gave her side an unassailable 3-0 lead over Ukraine in Kharkiv.
But the world No.10, who had overcome a slow start to crush a Mariya Koryttseva on Saturday, was forced to work harder for the decisive victory than might have been imagined.
Instead of facing her opposite number, Alona Bondarenko, in the first reverse singles on Sunday, 26-year-old Stosur was presented with Lyudmyla Kichenok, a 17-year-old Fed Cup debutante ranked No. 289 in the world.
And yet in the best of Fed Cup traditions, a match that had cakewalk written all over it turned into the most atmospheric rubber of the weekend. Though ultimately beaten, 76(4) 63, Kichenok gave the home fans plenty to cheer about – and look forward to in future.
Kichenok makes classy debut
With Bondarenko sidelined by a foot injury following her surprise three-set loss to Anastasia Rodionova on Saturday, Ukrainian captain Volodymyr Bogdanov had no choice but to upgrade Kichenok, who with her twin sister Nadiya had been slated to play only the doubles.
Serendipity was in the air at the Palace of Sports ‘Locomotiv’, however, as Kichenok took the fight to Stosur in a manner that completely belied her lack of experience.
Starting and ending her opening service game with an ace, Kichenok then broke her celebrated opponent in the third game, a rifled forehand winner putting her ahead.
Although Stosur held her next serve to love, she struggled to return her younger rival’s well-placed deliveries and after a break back opportunity was squandered in the eighth game, Kichenok was ahead 5-3.
Not surprisingly, though, the prospect of serving for the set at 5-4 revealed the first sign of weakness in the teenager. Stosur took the Ukrainian wide to draw a forehand error and pulled level at 5-5.
A powerful hold duly put the Aussie ahead for the first time in the match, but she fluffed a sitter in the next game and so the contest moved to a tiebreak. There, Kichenok led 2-0 and 4-3 but Stosur held her nerve, reeling off four points in a row to pocket the opener.
Stosur’s experience wins out
If Kichenok could have been forgiven for crumbling, the match remained competitive. Serving first, the Ukrainian held comfortably and when Stosur shanked a forehand in midcourt the Australian was down break point. But having cast aside that threat, Stosur broke through in the next game, aided by a double fault on game point.
The Australian had to save four break back points at 4-3, but that done moved swiftly to three match points at 0-40 in Kichenok’s next service game. Three heavy serves saw the score to deuce but after snapping up her fourth match point, Stosur could celebrate.
“She definitely made me work,” said the French Open semifinalist. “She has a strong first serve and was very good on attack; she hits the ball hard and flat and if she was there to hit it she was very effective. I just tried to get her moving as much as possible, make her play more defensively than she wanted to. In the end that was enough.
“It’s exciting,” added Stosur of her team’s promotion – a journey that began when they were relegated by Ukraine in 2007. “We’ve wanted to get back to the World Group for a couple of years now, and I think we’ve shown we deserve it. I’m really looking forward to next year.”
For her part, Kichenok, who was greeted with applause by the Ukrainian media, could take plenty of positives from an impressive display.
“My expectations were somewhat higher,” she confessed, when asked what she had learnt from playing such a big name for the first time. “But we are all human, and Samantha is too. Maybe it wasn’t her best match, but after I mastered my anxiety I found my rhythm, and I’m really happy with the way I played.”
Alicia Molik made it 4-0 for the visitors with a hard-fought win over Koryttseva, 26 62 75. “A win is a win and still important for the record,” said the 29-year-old comeback queen, who had taken to the court instead of Rodionova – and ended up playing the longest match of the tie.
In turn Rodionova, buoyed by her win on debut Saturday, took Stosur’s place partnering Rennae Stubbs in the doubles against the Kichenok twins. Although the Ukrainians saved a match point at 5-4 in the second set before winning it in a tie-break, the experienced Aussies completed a 5-0 whitewash, 62 67(2) 61.