BRATISLAVA, SLOVAK REPUBLIC: Like its Davis Cup counterpart, Fed Cup by BNP Paribas is famous for its twists and turns, but Agatha Christie herself might have drawn the line had she been presented with the plot for this one.
We had always suspected this World Group play-off might go to the fifth and final rubber, but few could have guessed how tortuous the route would be before we finally discovered whodunit.
Nothing was ever what it seemed in this tie and then it looked as if it might end anticlimactically in a straight sets win for the Slovak Republic doubles paring of Daniela Hantuchova and Magdalena Rybarikova. We should have known better.
How they managed to lose a rubber and a tie from 62 51 and 30-0 up they will never know. Nor will Serbia’s Jelena Jankovic and Alexandra Krunic probably ever know how they eventually managed to win it 26 75 97 after 3 hours 17 min, but if this tie taught us anything it is that you must never give up.
“We kept fighting and never gave up and somehow we managed to end up as winners,” said Jankovic, whose belated appearance in this tie certainly had some impact.
If she wasn’t quite able to explain how she won, she did manage to explain her controversial absence from Saturday’s singles – she was sick. “I didn’t feel good and Bojana [Jovanovski] did a really good job. I came out today even though I didn’t feel 100 per cent.”
Even by the weird and wonderful standards of this tie, it was an extraordinary match. Three times the Slovaks served for it, twice in the second set, once in the third. They also had two match points, but the first time match point presented itself to Serbia they grasped it.
It was particularly hard on Rybarikova, whose tennis throughout was a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous. Serving to stave off the match point she allowed a return from Krunic to sail past her and it landed just inside the baseline.
It would be easy to say that the turning point was the 10th game of the second set, which the Serbs eventually clinched with their fifth break point to pull level at 5-5, but in truth there were no turning points in this tie. Only misleading signposts.
The tie as a whole had just about everything: intrigue, injury, speculation and surprise – lots of surprise. The retirement of Ana Ivanovic with a recurrence of abdominal problems against Dominika Cibulkova, when trailing 64 33, looked like a body blow to the Serbs, but it was then that Jankovic came to their rescue, first by beating Hantuchova 62 36 75.
Whether Serbia would have won the tie earlier, no one can say, but the way Cibulkova, the little Slovak dynamo, was playing she would have taken some stopping. She had wanted to contribute a third point in this tie by playing in the doubles, but Matej Liptak, the Slovak captain, opted to keep with his nominated pairing instead.
Cibulkova no more deserved to finish on the losing side than Hantuchova. That may sound strange to say about a player who finished on the losing side in all three rubbers, but the one-time Fed Cup winner rolled back the years at times on Sunday.
The quality of tennis she produced in the second set against Jankovic was all the remarkable because it came after a desperately poor first set from her. She produced a wonderful mixture of power and subtlety and was close to winning as she was in the following doubles.
For a long time it looked like the retirement of Ivanovic would provide Serbia with a valid excuse for defeat. Her match against Cibulkova was developing into a minor classic when she took a 3-0 lead in the second set.
At that point she asked for a timeout and had strapping placed on the same abdominal muscles she injured at the Australian Open. Cibulkova said she took no notice of it because “many girls call timeouts to change the rhythm”, although not many do when they’re leading 3-0.
After that she stopped moving so freely and when Cibulkova pulled level at 3-3 she retired. “This is the first time someone has retired against me,” said the Slovak. “When I saw her walking to the net I got really happy so I hope she won’t take it personally.”
Dr Zdeslav Milinkovic, the Serbian team doctor, described Ivanovic’s injury as a “distortion of the front abdominal wall”, but said it was not serious and that after a couple of days’ rest she should be able to resume practice. He didn’t mention if she was allowed to party, but one imagines once the Serb team returned to its hotel she managed to crawl off her sick bed for a short while.
Captain Dejan Vranes (SRB) - 17/04/2011
Jelena Jankovic and Aleksandra Krunic (SRB) - 17/04/2011
Daniela Hantuchova (SVK) - 17/04/2011
Magdalena Rybarikova (SVK) - 17/04/2011
Serbian team doctor Zdeslav Milinkovic - 17/04/11
Dominika Cibulkova (SVK) - 17/4/2011