NIS, SERBIA: 2002 Fed Cup by BNP Paribas winners Slovak Republic were on the verge of taking a big step towards this year’s semifinals but a late and incredible twist of fortune allowed Serbia to force a 1-1 draw after the opening singles rubbers on Saturday.
The Slovakians went ahead after Daniela Hantuchova brushed aside Bojana Jovanovski 75 62 in the first match and Dominika Cibulkova was on the verge of giving the visitors a commanding 2-0 lead, but she retired with a calf injury shortly after serving for the match against Serbia’s Russian-born Fed Cup debutante Vesna Dolonc.
Cibulkova led 64 5-3 when she went down in anguish with an ankle sprain and although the world No. 15 briefly resumed after taking a medical timeout to receive treatment from Slovakia’s medical staff, she collapsed again moments later due to cramp in an astonishing climax to the rip-roaring action in the Cair Hall.
“The cramps started in her right calf muscle and although we gave her magnesium the pain soon spread to the rest of the body,” Slovakia’s team captain Matej Liptak told a press conference. “These things can happen and I feel really sorry for Dominika, but more importantly the first priority for us is that she recovers fully. We can’t say now whether she will be fit to play on Sunday, we will see what the scan says and then we will sit down and make a decision,” he added.
If unfit, Cibulkova will almost certainly be replaced by Magdalena Rybarikova, who was also nominated to play in the doubles. Last season’s runners-up Serbia, who headed into the tie missing their top two players Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic through injury, will now head into Sunday’s reverse singles and the potentially decisive doubles with a second lease of life after being on the ropes on the opening day.
Roared on by a passionate and vociferous home crowd, a half-fit Jovanovski – who is nursing a lower back injury – made a bright start against the more experienced Hantuchova and broke the 29-year old’s serve to take a 2-0 lead in the opening set. However, it turned out to be nothing more than an early flash in the pan for the Serb as Hantuchova, who led the Slovaks to the 2002 title in her heyday when she was a Top 10 player, soon regained her composure and broke straight back in a knife-edged first set.
Subsequent games went with serve until Hantuchova carved out a triple break point with a smashing forehand winner and capitalised on it to nose ahead 6-5 before she wrapped up the opening set after Jovanovski had saved two set points.
The Slovakian then turned on the heat in the second set, running her flat-looking opponent ragged with devastating baseline shots which found lines and corners with laser-beam precision. She raced into a 4-0 lead as Jovanovski seemed bereft of confidence and energy and just could not cope with Hantuchova’s barrage of forehand winners.
“I felt really comfortable on the court and having weathered the early storm, I got into my rhythm and played my game,” Hantuchova said after sealing the match in 1 hour 25 minutes. “I served really well and the game plan to keep Bojana on the back foot as much as possible worked to perfection most of the match so I am really pleased with my performance,” she added.
The Russian-born Dolonc instantly won the hearts of the home crowd when she stepped on to the court, and was cheered on by a plethora of friends and relatives as Nis is her father’s hometown. The 23-year old Muscovite earned a 2-0 lead in the opening set before Cibulkova gradually gained the upper hand in a fierce exchange of spectacular shots either side of the net throughout the truly absorbing contest.
Ranked 77 places below world No. 15 Cibulkova, Dolonc bravely traded blows with her more heralded rival who engineered 13 winners in the opening set and conceded nine as both players combined punishing groundstrokes with successful forays to the net. Cibulkova saved a break point at 3-3 and then took a 5-3 lead to get into the driving seat. She broke Dolonc’s serve again in the tenth game and took the opening set after the Serb had briefly rekindled hopes of swinging the momentum back her way.
The early stages of the second set produced a carbon copy of the first, with Dolonc racing into a 2-0 lead before the Slovakian redressed the balance. A strength-sapping high tempo exchange saw Dolonc take a 3-2 lead, but she inexplicably fizzled out despite vociferous backing from the raucous home fans. Cibulkova drew level with a searing forehand winner down the line, a shot she applied superbly all afternoon, before saving a break point to edge in front 4-3 much to the delight of her bench and a handful of Slovakian fans in Serbia’s second biggest city.
When the slugfest seemed beyond Dolonc, whose body language suggested she had all but given up hope trailing 5-3 in the second set, Cibulkova went down with a painful grimace and several minutes later she was unable to hold back the tears.
Having failed to recover after twice being treated on the court, the Slovakian was forced to retire when victory seemed firmly within her grasp.
View match statistics here: Live scores
Vesna Dolonc (SRB) - 09/02/2013
Captain Dejan Vranes (SRB) - 09/02/2013
Captain Matej Liptak (SVK) - 09/02/2013
Daniela Hantuchova (SVK) - 09/02/2013
Bojana Jovanovski (SRB) - 09/02/2013