BRATISLAVA, SLOVAK REPUBLIC: Czech Republic is through to the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group semifinals for a third straight year, Petra Kvitova giving her side an unassailable 3-0 lead with victory in the first reverse singles on Sunday.
Although the Slovak hosts restored a measure of pride in the dead rubbers that followed, reducing the deficit to 3-2, they must now survive April’s play-offs in order to avoid relegation a year after returning to the elite eight. Meantime, the Czechs will face Belgium for a place in the final.
Kvitova’s victim was an at-times hapless Hantuchova, whose lack of recent match practice was always going to be an issue against one of the hottest players on tour.
Having won the toss and elected to receive, the young Czech broke Hantuchova in the first game, and it was a foreboding start. After 10 minutes the score was 4-0, with Kvitova attacking each ball as though her life depended on it, keeping her opponent on the back foot.
And yet, out of the blue, Hantuchova finally gave the home crowd something to roar about when she held serve to love with a scorching backhand down the line. Two games later the decibel count went even higher when the 27-year-old recovered from 0-30 to hold.
When the former world No. 5 saved three set points on Kvitova’s serve in the next game, the score improved to 5-3, and the roof nearly blew off the stadium.
But the errors that had crept into the Czech’s game, helping Hantuchova to eventually close the gap to 5-4, didn’t last long enough to make a material difference. Presented with another opportunity to serve out the set, Kvitova did just that – with another ferocious backhand.
Unfortunately for the hosts, the second set followed a similar pattern. Hantuchova was broken in the first game; couldn’t capitalise on two break back points in the next; and missed two game points on her own next serve to go down 3-0. That was soon 4-0, two service holds coming too late. Kvitova dealt the knock-out blow with an ace, 64 62.
“She just played unbelievable tennis,” said a philosophical Hantuchova. “She’s got so much power, and I think the advantage of being a lefty really helps her on serve. She’s just brave… she plays like she has nothing to lose. I think it’s just a matter of time before she cracks the Top 10.”
“I started very well again,” said Kvitova with characteristic understatement. “My serve was good… everything was good. I’m happy with the way I played, and very happy that we are in the semifinals again.”
With nothing to lose, Slovak captain Matej Liptak relieved Dominika Cibulkova of the task of facing Lucie Safarova. Instead, he sent Fed Cup debutante Jana Cepelova into battle.
Cepelova, who won the silver medal at the Youth Olympics in Singapore last year, won an ITF Women’s Circuit event in Germany last month and this week is at a new ranking high of No.437.
But despite the gulf in experience, the 17-year-old took the fight to Safarova in a major way, bouncing back from a tight first set loss to take the second in a tie-break with some fine cat-and-mouse play.
It was, in fact, enough to earn Cepelova her first Fed Cup win, as Safarova promptly retired from the match with a hamstring strain, the score at 46 76(5).
The Slovak youngster got to taste unqualified triumph later, though, when she partnered with Magdalena Rybarikova in a doubles rubber that proved to be anything but anti-climactic.
The home team edged the highly-fancied Czech duo of Kveta Peschke and Barbora Zahlavova Strycova in a third set tie-break, 61 46 76(4).