OSTRAVA, CZECH REPUBLIC: Italy’s crown as the best nation in women’s tennis was all but officially whipped away from them this weekend as the reigning champions Czech Republic convincingly dismantled the previously top-ranked nation to edge closer to another title in the Fed Cup by BNP Parisbas.
They had to wait until they were 18 years old as an independent nation before success arrived in Fed Cup. Now this country with a population of little over 10 million is one step away from securing back-to-back titles in astonishing style. Only Final debutants Serbia stand in their way.
They have the enviable privilege of being able to choose the venue of the tie after a 4-1 victory over three-time champions, Italy. Their berth was guaranteed after the third rubber, without having dropped a set as the visitors struggled to keep up with the pace of the deliberately fast hard courts.
The tone was set when Lucie Safarova won just the sixth rubber of her nine-year Fed Cup career against Italy’s top player Francesca Schiavone in the opening rubber. And, although she had to grind it out after being a break behind in both sets, Petra Kvitova ultimately had too much power for the marvellously dogged Sara Errani.
Already the 5-0 hammering the Czechs received on the Rome clay two years ago seemed almost inconceivable as Italy were left with the task of coming back from two rubbers down for the first time in their history.
As Errani recognised after her dual with Kvitova, the difference between the two sets of players came when the pressure was highest. She said, “I think she closed very good both sets. I was near, I had my break points and I couldn’t make it.”
That was precisely the case in what proved the decisive third rubber. Kvitova - who had only played three times since the previous tie in February because of illness and injury - was visibly rigid with nerves on occasions, but was able to focus intently at the end of each set to fight from behind against a much-improved Schiavone and seal a straight sets win that looked for a while as if it could go either way.
At various moments Kvitova wasn’t hitting as fluently as we’re used to seeing and she acknowledged that nerves played a part, though she insisted it was “normal”. What isn’t normal is playing in front of a crowd consisting of around 100 friends and family. That was partly down to her father, Jiri, who bought as many tickets and consequently there was a weight of expectation that was apparent at times, but she overcame it admirably.
It was a sizzling atmosphere generated by around 7,000 fans that had been without a home tie for over two years. Czech captain Petr Pala described it as the best he’d ever experienced in Fed Cup. It was definitely one of the noisiest.
Kvitova’s steel in winning a staggering 29th match in succession indoors meant the principle task was complete and Pala’s team would be in the Final again. He stated, “I couldn’t be any prouder than this. Three out of three against such a good team as Italy – I’m very proud.”
Asked if he now felt they were the de facto No. 1 nation Pala was too modest to make such an assertion, wisely preferring to underline that they’ve not won the trophy yet. However, the new Fed Cup rankings - published the day after the tie ended - confirmed what was evident on the court, as the Czechs leapfrogged the Italians to become the competition’s top-ranked nation for the first time.
Italy’s hopes of a fourth title in seven years were extinguished and although Errani salvaged some pride with a three-set victory over debutante Andrea Hlavackova, the weekend ended on a further sour note with Flavia Pennetta in tears after suffering a wrist injury in the final doubles rubber.
Their memories of Ostrava shan’t be ones they’ll reflect on keenly with captain Corrado Barazzutti acknowledging that the surface was a telling factor. He said, “The courts are much better for the Czech players. At all the important moments we lost the points. The court faster is not the best for us, but the Czech players played very good.”
With three Grand Slam champions in their line-up (Kvitova and the Roland Garros doubles winners Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova) as well as an undoubtedly gifted, only erratic second singles player Lucie Safarova, the Czechs have become the envy of many nations far larger than themselves.
Just like the Czechoslovakia era of Handlikova and Sukova in the 1980s when they won three Fed Cups in succession, the ingredients are there for a new period of domination. It’s down to Serbia to be at their best in November. It’s the only way they’ll give themselves a chance.
Captain Petr Pala (CZE) - 22/04/2012
Captain Corrado Barazzutti (ITA) - 22/04/2012