BRATISLAVA, SLOVAK REPUBLIC: Fed Cup stalwarts Daniela Hantuchova and Dominika Cibulkova once again answered their country’s call of duty by stepping into the limelight to represent the host nation in their Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group II first round tie against France.
Held in the recently-renamed Aegon Arena, venue of numerous nail-baiting and epic battles in both team tennis competitions, STZ Secretary General Igor Moska got the proceedings under way and conducted the official draw with the help of Andrew Jarrett.
The French captain put his trust in Fed Cup novice and 2009 ITF Junior World Champion Kristina Mladenovic, which may have come as a surprise to most of us, but the Slovak captain Matej Liptak seemed unmoved.
“I am not shocked at all," said Liptak. "I have expected this since the first day of our preparation. I was wondering who the second singles player might be, and it seems Escude has opted for experience by picking Virginie [Razzano]."
Slovak No. 2 and current world No. 20 Daniela Hantuchova will be hoping to set the tone for her team when she opens proceedings on Saturday against French No. 1 Pauline Parmentier, followed by Dominika Cibulkova against Virginie Razzano.
The French captain seemed happy with the draw when he said: “I believe the draw has been favourable for us. Pauline is opening the tie, and do not forget that she beat Daniela last time they met. Moreover the pressure will be on the home team, they need to win it for themselves and for the fans."
A point to prove
That is what both countries have in common ahead of this eagerly awaited clash. The Slovaks, captained by Liptak, who is entering his fourth year at helm of the national team and is the longest serving Fed Cup captain in Slovak history, will be trying to please the success-hungry home crowd after the team sufferred back-to-back home defeats at the hands of Czech Republic and Serbia respectively last year.
Unlike his counterpart, Nicolas Escude will be guiding his ship into unfamiliar waters as the proud tennis nation had played every year in Fed Cup's World Group since the women's team event was inaugurated in 1963.
Sadly for Les Bleus the 4-1 defeat at the hands of Spain in last year's relegation play-offs caused history books to be re-written. Escude, the hero of a memorable and stunning Davis Cup triumph over Australia in 2001, conceded at a pre-draw press conference that his team will be facing a tough challenge here in Bratislava
"For sure the home team is the favourite, they have two great players, both in the Top 20, they are playing at home, on their surface, but you know in tennis the winner is never clear until the last fifteen has been played."
Liptak was a more cautious in his predictions: "Well it is not going to be easy, the French have a very strong and well-balanced team. They miss a clear leader, but any of them is able to put some points on the board. We have to stay focused as even the slightest underestimation may not pay off."
The French have all the potential to pull off an upset as they almost did in Moscow last year when Alize Cornet overcame an injured ankle to produce a stunner by defeating Svetlana Kuznetsova and Virginie Razzano dismantled former world No. 1 Maria Sharapova in straight sets to give France a shock 2-0 lead after day one.
Moreover both teams have a rich history of knife-edge encounters. It took an epic effort and unbelievable 12 hours 27 minutes to determine the winner the last time these two teams crossed sabres in Limoges in 2009. In what has come to be remembered as the longest tie in Fed Cup history the hosts snatched the decisive fifth rubber, thus avenging the defeat from 2002.
Slovaks the favourites?
On paper the Slovaks appear to be slight favourites.The Cibulkova-Hantuchova duo has an unbelievable wealth of experience with over 35 appearances between them and both of them have won silverware for their country.
Hantuchova was a member of the Slovak team that won Fed Cup in 2002, while Cibulkova joined forces with Dominik Hrbaty to claim the 2009 Hopman Cup. “I just love the competition and one of my dreams is to win the Fed Cup one day because it’s just great,” explained Cibulkova. “I adore the atmosphere, I love everything about the Fed Cup and I love to play for my country.”
Not only the rankings and experience, but also the head-to-heads speak in favour of the home team. The only French player that can boast a neutral record with either Hantuchova or Cibulkova is Parmentier - currently at a 1-1 deadlock with Hantuchova.
A more focused look at the stats suggests that none of the French ladies came to Bratislava with a winning Fed Cup singles record, with the exception of Razzano who is currently sitting on a 7-3 win-loss record.
In addition to that, Hantuchova, unlike her opponents, had a good swing Down Under, reaching the quarterfinals in Sydney, the third round in Melbourne, and finishing runner-up to Kaia Kanepi in Brisbane.
However, one of the undeniable charms of Fed Cup is the fact that it is completely unpredictable. Rankings, WTA titles and head-to-heads are all in the shade besides team spirit and the honour of representing the motherland. And such a call of duty can always pull a rabbit out of the hat.
The full draw is listed below.
R1: Hantuchova (SVK) v Parmentier (FRA)
R2: Cibulkova (SVK) v Razzano (FRA)
R3: Cibulkova (SVK) v Parmentier (FRA)
R4: Hantuchova (SVK) v Razzano (FRA)
R5: Cibulkova / Hantuchova (SVK) v Cornet / Mladenovic (FRA)
Sign up to watch this tie live over the weekend on: FedCup.tv
Captain Nicolas Escude (FRA) - 03/02/12
Captain Matej Liptak (SVK) - 03/02/12
Pauline Parmentier (FRA) - 03/02/12
Virginie Razzano (FRA) - 03/02/12
Dominika Cibulkova (SVK) - 03/02/2012