BESANCON, FRANCE: The last time Marion Bartoli played Fed Cup by BNP Paribas tennis her captain Amelie Mauresmo was still an under-achiever and nearly two years away from winning the first of her two grand slam titles.
Emotions, both on her side and that of the French crowd in Besancon, will understandably be running high when she steps out to face Galina Voskoboeva in the opening rubber of the World Group II play-off against Kazakhstan on Saturday.
In the eight and a half years since she last played - which was in the doubles team that narrowly lost the deciding rubber in the 2004 final against Russia – French women’s tennis has fallen into decline. Defeat here doesn’t bear thinking about; it would condemn them to life in the Europe/Africa zone for the first time in the country’s history.
But if the pressure is all on France it wasn’t obvious from the demeanour of Mauresmo’s players at Friday’s draw, which was held in the Citadel of Besancon, a site with a strategic importance first recognised by Julius Caesar. France must hope that the Palais des Sports – where it beat Slovenia 5-0 this time last year – is just as good a fortress.
Alize Cornet, the French No. 2, knew Mauresmo as a Fed Cup teammate and now as a captain; this is Mauresmo’s second match in charge.
“She was a great as a player and she’s doing a really good job as a captain,” said Cornet. “She’s doing a lot of communication with us, she’s a really positive girl, laughing a lot and I really enjoy working with her. I think she's going to be really good on the court with me because she knows how to manage my sometimes bad character."
Cornet is less of a clay court specialist these days and welcomes the hard court laid for this tie. Her ranking of No. 33 is actually five places higher than that of the Kazakhastan No. 1, Yaroslava Shvedova, whom she meets in the second rubber. It could prove a crucial one for Kazakhstan, assuming that they are trailing after the first rubber.
While Bartoli, the world No. 14, ought to beat Voskoboeva, who is ranked 99 places beneath her, the Kazakhs refuse to accept that a French victory is a formality - as they keep telling Voskoboeva.
“I have played her several times (five in all), but last time – as everyone keeps reminding me – I beat her, so I think this is one of the reasons why I was selected,” she said.
Another reason is her very fine Fed Cup record which was fittingly recognised by the ITF when it named her recently as one of the four recipients of its Fed Cup Heart Award. Her win in the doubles in the Asia/Oceania Zone Group I ties earned her country its first appearance in the World Group plays-offs and along with two other wins improved her win-loss record to 18-6 – the finest individual one in the young nation’s history.
The French, on the other hand, will be looking to the Mauresmo-Bartoli partnership to not only win this tie but lift the nation back to where they believe it belongs. Mauresmo’s arrival as captain in succession to Nicolas Escude has been credited as the main reason for Bartoli’s return to the fold.
But for the flu Bartoli would have played against Germany in the first round and possibly made the difference between defeat and victory in Limoges. As it was, she still turned out to support the team from the stands.
Mauresmo said of Bartoli: “Throughout the week she’s bringing some intensity, showing all the girls how a former Top 10 player is practising - this is something that’s important to me that I want to show the young ones – and she did it completely naturally, not even thinking about it. Even though lately she hasn’t been playing her best tennis, I definitely think that she can quickly step up.”
The full draw is listed below:
R1: Marion Bartoli (FRA) v Galina Voskoboeva (KAZ)
R2: Alize Cornet (FRA) v Yaroslava Shvedova (KAZ)
R3: Marion Bartoli (FRA) v Yaroslava Shvedova (KAZ)
R4: Alize Cornet (FRA) v Galina Voskoboeva (KAZ)
R5: Alize Cornet/Kristina Mladenovic (FRA) v Yaroslava Shvedova/Galina Voskoboeva (KAZ)
Follow this tie as it happens: Live scores or Watch Live
Captain Amelie Mauresmo (FRA) - 19/04/13
Marion Bartoli (FRA) - 19/04/13
Alize Cornet (FRA) - 19/04/13
Yaroslava Shvedova (KAZ) - 19/04/13
Galina Voskoboeva (KAZ - 19/04/13