LLEIDA, SPAIN: Having fended off relegation from the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group three years running, France couldn’t escape its fate this weekend. The proud tennis nation, one of just four in the competition since its inception - and always in the top tier - was sent down to World Group II by a determined Spanish side, four rubbers to one.
As the dust settled on the clay courts of the Club de Tenis Lleida it was hard not to feel sorry for French captain Nicolas Escude. The great Amelie Mauresmo might be gone, but France still boasts a clutch of very fine players. And yet fielding a confident, full-strength team has proven to be a tricky task of late.
With French No. 1 Marion Bartoli at an impasse with the national federation over the role her father (and coach) might play in the team environment, Escude seems constantly pressed into risky moves. This time, signs of uncertainty were revealed at Friday’s draw when Virginie Razzano, currently ranked No. 102, was named to the No. 2 singles slot – ahead of Alize Cornet, ranked 35 places higher.
Razzano surely deserves respect, but the decision sent a message: Cornet is still stressed by Fed Cup, even after she scored her first point with a bravura win over Svetlana Kuznetsova in February. The former world No. 12 didn’t even play the fourth singles rubber against Lourdes Dominguez Lino, as many suspected was the plan. Instead, Pauline Parmentier, like Razzano currently ranked outside the Top 100, stepped up to defend her country’s status.
So while Razzano and Parmentier did their best against Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez and Dominguez Lino respectively, the only real bright spot for the French was Aravane Rezai’s gutsy three set defeat of Anabel Medina Garrigues to level the tie at 1-1 on Saturday. The world No. 24 admitted the victory was significant “both personally and professionally”.
Rezai has been sideswiped by off-court distractions this season. Her training has been affected and match wins few. Drop shot queen Martinez Sanchez certainly exploited the resulting lack of condition in the first reverse singles, but even so Rezai was far from humbled. And in a positive sign, on Monday the French federation announced it would provide a coach and physical trainer to the 24-year-old at least until Roland Garros – a well-deserved show of support for a player with many Fed Cup outings ahead of her.
“Sure, personal issues make things complicated for the players, and complicated for me,” said Escude. “But all my girls did their best the whole week, during the preparation and in their matches... Aravane played an unbelievable match yesterday. We’re all going to work hard to get back to the World Group.”
Things were much sunnier in the Spanish camp, with Martinez Sanchez undoubtedly the ace in the pack. The 28-year-old’s variety-packed game was both entertaining and effective as she cruised to straight set wins on both days; Rezai led 3-1 in the second set of their match, but even then the Spaniard never really seemed to be in peril.
“There has been a lot of talk about strategy this weekend, but the best strategy is simply to have Maria Jose on your team,” said Miguel Margets, the proud Spanish captain. “We have showed this year that we have great spirit, and that we can win indoors, on hard courts – not just on clay.
“The players came here in good form and that gave us options in singles and doubles,” he added. “Hopefully next year we’ll have Carla Suarez Navarro back from injury and that will make us even stronger.”
Indeed, sad as it is to see France demoted after all this time, it’s good to see Spain back among the elite after a two year absence. They were the dominant force in the 1990s, lifting the trophy five times when Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and Conchita Martinez were at the vanguard. Can the current line-up do those legends proud in 2012? There’s no reason why not.