CHARLEROI, BELGIUM: This pulsating tie went down to the wire, with Czech Republic emerging victorious, to take their place in the final of the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas, where they will face Russia in November.
For Czech Republic it is third time lucky. They were beaten semifinalists the past two years and – at times – may have feared they would fall agonisingly short once again.
History has also been made here in Charleroi. Czech Republic has never reached the final of the Fed Cup. As Czechoslovakia they were a dominant powerhouse in the 1980s, winning it four times in six years. Since becoming an independent nation in 1994, Fed Cup glory has been out of reach – until now.
The tie was decided by the doubles. Iveta Benesova and Barbora Zahlavova Strycova combined to down the Belgian pairing of Yanina Wickmayer and Kirsten Flipkens 64 64.
Doubles specialists they may be, but Benesova and Zahlavova Strycova showed great strength of character, for different reasons. Benesova had not featured all weekend, and was thrust into the limelight at such a crucial stage. Zahlavova Strycova was at rock bottom, having just moments earlier been convincingly beaten by Flipkens in the fourth singles rubber.
For Benesova, this was a sweet moment. She said: “I’m not going to lie, it was in my mind the two semifinals that we lost before. This time, though, I just knew we were going to win. I’m so excited.”
Zahlavova added: “Everything was in my head. The lows of losing to Kirsten, and then this high. This is the best feeling. It’s a great achievement for Czech Republic and for the whole team. We’ve worked so hard for this victory.”
After missing out at the semifinal stage in 2009 and 2010, winning captain, Petr Pala, was understandably relieved: “It’s been a very long time coming. This is a huge victory but we’re not done yet. We’re looking forward because we want to win the cup.”
Earlier, Petra Kvitova came from a set down against Yanina Wickmayer to win 57 64 62 to give Czech Republic a 2-1 lead. This was a match of high quality and no shortage of drama, with two players pushing themselves to the brink and beyond, both physically and emotionally.
Kvitova even went as far as to suggest this was her best performance in Fed Cup, turning the screw in the third set with Wickmayer wilting.
Flipkens then emerged for the fourth singles rubber, against Zahlavova Strycova, no doubt with memories of 2006 lurking at the back of her mind. She was part of the Belgian side beaten in the final of the Fed Cup at the Spiroudome in Charleroi. Indeed, she was a set up in the fourth rubber, with Belgium leading 2-1.
Any thoughts of falling short this time were swiftly dispelled, as the 25-year-old picked up where she left off against Kvitova the previous day, controlling the tempo, controlling the court, and – ultimately – controlling the match. Heart-pumping, fist-clenching, foot-stomping drama, Flipkens triumphed in the blink of an eye 62 63 to set up a do-or-die decider in the doubles.
As expected, this was not the arena for 17-year-olds An-Sophie Mestach and Alison van Uytvanck. Rather, Belgium captain Sabine Appelmans placed her faith in the experienced warriors Wickmayer and Flipkens. In the end, though, it was a battle too far.
Appelmans told me: “I said at the start of the weekend that my players would give everything. Unfortunately we lost, but they can be proud of what they achieved.”
Wickmayer sighed: “Even at 2-2 they will have been confident. Benesova and Strycova are a Top 20 team, so they may have lost the fourth singles but they then showed that they can play doubles.”
Flipkens stood staring at the ground, as she was forced to re-live the drama with a series of interviews. Appelmans did her best to console the brave Belgian, with a rub of the shoulder, but the pain of this defeat will remain for some time.
For the Czechs, though, next stop Russia and a crack at the Fed Cup – at last.
Captain Petr Pala (CZE) - 17/04/2011
Iveta Benesova and Barbora Zahlavova Strycova (CZE) - 17/04/2011
Captain Sabine Appelmans (BEL) - 17/04/2011
Yanina Wickmayer (BEL) - 17/04/2011
Petra Kvitova (CZE) - 17/04/2011