Belarus and Switzerland clinched the two available spots in April’s World Group II play-offs after coming through two valiantly fought Fed Cup by BNP Paribas Zone Group I promotion encounters in Eilat on Saturday, against Poland and Netherlands respectively.
In probably the best quality women's match ever played in Israel, Belarus’s Victoria Azarenka beat Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska, the world No. 9 and No. 10, 75 75 in front of a packed stadium.
The appreciative crowd fully realised the potential for great tennis, and they weren't disappointed, as both women brought their A game to court in swirling wind of the sort that has ruined many a match.
Radwanska's defensive and accurate play has yielded her many victories against the stiffest of opposition, and she raced into a 5-2 lead in the first set before Azarenka began to claw her way back and reeled off five games to snatch set.
The second set followed a similar pattern as the Belarusian dropped her serve to go down 2-4 before recovering and gaining a late break to close out the match.
The match was interspersed with some deft drop shots and lobs as the persistent wind aided the players when hitting into it and the accurate play helped keep the unforced error toll very low.
With both players most adept at playing long, baseline rallies it was Azarenka's power which was marginally the more effective and just enough to gain the win.
"There really weren't many unforced errors and that is what made it such a high quality match,” said Azarenka. “I enjoyed the win, it's tough, it's ugly sometimes but what's important is the end."
The first singles rubber between the two No. 2 players also produced quality tennis and a similar style of play, as Olga Govorotsova edged out Magda Linette, also in a 75 75 scoreline.
Captain Alex Skrypko was mobbed by his team at the end of the match as the women confirmed to him that all the hard work had been worthwhile.
"Last year we had a very big disappointment, we lost to Austria in the deciding match so we are really excited, we were ready 100 per cent and we looked forward to it and it has happened," the Belarus captain said.
The second promotion play-off between Switzerland and Netherlands finished late into the cold night, as the Swiss held off a brave Dutch challenge to win a thrilling high-class doubles clash after the singles rubbers were shared.
Timea Baczinsky put the Swiss ahead in the first singles rubber in a drawn out affair that lasted some three hours as she beat Michaela Krajicek 64 57 75, a match that could have gone either way.
Arantxa Rus then powered past Patty Schnyder 64 61 before the same four players came back after a rest to contest the crucial doubles.
The Dutch pair’s better skills at power tennis and ability at the net saw them open a slight gap and they powered to what seemed like victory in the first set, but the Swiss duo managed to hold on. Schnyder soaked up the pace to find an opening for a winner or to play a delicate volley, and Baczinsky continued to force the pace mainly from the back of the court.
“I knew we could play well, but we really played great, my returns were not good in the beginning but then I really got my game going and Timi as well so it’s great,” Schnyder said as the entire Swiss team and accompanying supporters celebrated in a dance on the court.
In the relegation matches, Greece condemned Denmark to Group II and left world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki deeply disappointed as, although she won all her singles encounters during the week, she was unable to help her teammates overcome the opposition.
Bulgaria fielded Dia Evtimova as a stand-in for injured No. 1 Tsvetana Pironkova and they beat Latvia by winning both singles rubbers, sending the Latvians down to Group II as well.
Saturday's full results and final standings are below.
Belarus defeated Poland 2-0
Olga Govortsova (BLR) d. Magda Linette (POL) 76(3) 76(0)
Victoria Azarenka (BLR) d. Agnieszka Radwanska (POL) 75 75
Doubles not played
Switzerland defeated Netherlands 2-1
Timea Bacsinszky (SUI) d. Michaella Krajicek (NED) 64 57 75
Arantxa Rus (NED) d. Patty Schnyder (SUI) 64 61
Timea Bacsinszky / Patty Schnyder (SUI) d. Michaella Krajicek / Arantxa Rus (NED) 75 62
Great Britain defeated Croatia 2-0
Heather Watson (GBR) d. Silvia Njiric (CRO) 62 75
Elena Baltacha (GBR) d. Ajla Tomljanovic (CRO) 62 63
Doubles not played
Israel defeated Romania 2-1
Monica Niculescu (ROU) d. Julia Glushko (ISR) 64 61
Shahar Peer (ISR) d. Alexandra Dulgheru (ROU) 60 75
Julia Glushko / Shahar Peer (ISR) d. Cristina Dinu / Alexandra Dulgheru (ROU) 64 63
Austria defeated Luxembourg 2-1
Anne Kremer (LUX) d. Melanie Klauffner (AUT) 60 64
Sybille Bammer (AUT) d. Mandy Minella (LUX) 64 62
Melanie Klauffner / Sandra Klemenschits (AUT) d. Anne Kremer / Mandy Minella (LUX) 06 60 75
Bulgaria defeated Latvia 2-0
Dia Evtimova (BUL) d. Irina Kuzmina (LAT) 57 63 63
Elitsa Kostova (BUL) d. Liga Dekmeijere (LAT) 63 63
Doubles not played
Greece defeated Denmark 2-1
Eirini Georgatou (GRE) d. Karen Barbat (DEN) 61 76(2)
Caroline Wozniacki (DEN) d. Eleni Daniilidou (GRE) 60 63
Eleni Daniilidou / Eirini Georgatou (GRE) d. Mai Grage / Caroline Wozniacki (DEN) 62 75
1= Belarus, Switzerland (promoted)
3= Poland, Netherlands
5= Great Britain, Israel
7= Croatia, Romania
9= Austria, Hungary
12= Bulgaria, Greece
14= Latvia, Denmark (relegated)
- Europe/Africa Zone Group I