BRATISLAVA, SLOVAK REPUBLIC: When Czech Republic reached the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas semifinals in 2009 and again last year, it was fair to say the team was punching above its weight. They didn’t boast a major star, but had terrific spirit and the talent pool was deep. However, after their fierce dispatch of the Slovaks this weekend, they deserve to be considered real contenders for the title in 2011.
The ace in the Czech pack is Petra Kvitova, who arrived in Bratislava as the newest member of the world’s Top 20. Kvitova had a terrific swing Down Under, and unfortunately for the hosts, she brought her blistering form back to Europe. First Dominika Cibulkova, and then Daniela Hantuchova, were left reeling in her straight-sets wake.
Disarmingly low-key – 20 minutes before tackling Hantuchova on Sunday morning, she was out in the very crowded public concourse chatting with her family – Kvitova insists nothing has changed. But in Australia there was a real sense that a star had been born, and her performances in Bratislava only reinforced those sentiments.
“Her level of play was unbelievable,” said a shell-shocked Hantuchova after her 64 62 loss in the decisive reverse singles match on Sunday. “She’s just brave - she plays like she has no pressures, swinging at every shot. And at the moment, everything’s going in.
“I think it’s just a matter of time before she cracks the Top 10.”
Conversely, Hantuchova’s visit to Australia could not have gone much worse. An Achilles strain forced her out of Brisbane, and though fears she would be out for months proved unfounded, the injury probably contributed to first round losses in Sydney and Melbourne.
Against Kvitova, and indeed against Lucie Safarova in the opening rubber at the Sibamac Arena on Saturday, that meant one thing for the Slovak No. 1. By far the most experienced Fed Cup trouper in town, she simply wasn’t match-tough.
“We could see Daniela wasn’t as comfortable on the court as she usually is,” said Czech captain Petr Pala after his team’s triumph. “That was a huge advantage for us, and I think the surface also suited us this weekend. Our girls served and returned better.”
That Kvitova and Safarova are both statuesque lefties was also a critical factor. Cibulkova, a great mover but the shortest player in the Top 100, confessed to struggling with the high bouncing balls sent down by the Czechs; Hantuchova admitted to not reading her opponents’ serves as well as she’d hoped.
The Czechs also seemed to handle the ‘local derby’ phenomenon better. In many ways they enjoyed the best of both worlds: Hundreds of Czech fans, including their own family members and friends, could be on hand to lend vociferous support. But they didn’t have to deal with the hometown pressure cooker, which Hantuchova acknowledged could make things “tricky”.
For Slovak captain Matej Liptak, who paid tribute to the “great performance by the Czech girls”, the weekend brought one bright spot, though.
On Saturday he told 17-year-old Jana Cepelova she would replace Cibulkova against Safarova, should Hantuchova lose her reverse singles. And when that came to pass, the Fed Cup debutante managed something her worldly-wise compatriots couldn’t.
That Safarova retired with their match at a set apiece mattered little, for Cepelova had thrilled the crowd with her gutsy and inventive game. And justice was certainly done when she combined with Magdalena Rybarikova to edge Kveta Peschke and Barbora Zahlavova Strycova in the doubles, improving the final standings to 3-2.
“I feel amazing – I can’t believe it,” said Cepelova, who won’t be ranked No. 437 for long. “I’ve never played a Top 30 player before… I’m used to playing the juniors!”
“I’m happy that we have a player like that for the future, and I hope she will keep improving,” said Liptak. “Jana is just starting out in women’s tennis, and yet she played like this was just a normal match for her.”
So while the Slovaks must front up to the World Group play-offs in April to defend the elite eight place they worked so hard for, the Czechs are already psyched up for their semi against Belgium, likely to be led by Kim Clijsters.
“It’s going to be tough, but they are definitely beatable - Kim is probably the best player in the world at the moment, but she cannot do everything,” observed Pala. “There are five matches, and you need three points. I think our girls have proved on many occasions they can beat Top 10 players. In Fed Cup, there are no guarantees.”