Regardless of form, fitness or reputation, you can never be quite sure how a player will react to the unique pressures that come with representing your country. Some are inspired. Some crumble. Time and again Fed Cup and Davis Cup tennis throws up - what appear on paper - the most irregular of results.
Nobody in Swiss tennis can have been quite sure how Romina Oprandi would react to leading her nation for the very first time in Fed Cup. But to the delight of her captain Heinz Guenthardt, her team-mates and the wider community of Swiss tennis, things couldn’t have gone any better against the visiting Belgians.
Oprandi, who until January 2012 had represented the Italian flag on tour, marked her debut in the team competition by producing a clay court masterclass to outwit two higher-ranked and in-form opponents in world No. 22 Yanina Wickmayer and No. 34 Kirsten Flipkens.
Backed up by compatriot Stefanie Voegele, the duo proved too much for Belgian captain Ann Devries’ squad as the hosts romped to a 4-1 victory in their Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group II tie.
From her courtside bench, Devries had one of the best - and perhaps most painful - views from which to observe Oprandi at close quarters and when asked whether it had been the Swiss No. 1 who had made the difference between the two teams, was emphatic in her response. “Definitely,” was her assessment. “She played a good match on Saturday and was even better on Sunday. She hardly missed a ball and was very motivated.”
Switzerland’s reward is an April play-off which would offer them a route back to the elite eight-nation World Group, while Belgium must re-group in time for their own showdown the same month, a tie they must win to preserve their World Group II status.
Swiss leader Guenthardt has a rich pedigree in women’s tennis - he coached Germany’s Steffi Graf to 12 of her 22 Grand Slam singles titles - and will use all of his powers and experience to try to steer his squad into the top tier of the famous team competition.
April’s tie will be only his third in charge, but after his team’s performance to beat the fancied Belgians in Bern over the weekend, he says he is relishing the opportunity for his girls to play the role of giant killer once more.
“We’d obviously love to play at home in April,” Guenthardt admitted. “Most likely, we’ll be the underdogs again when it comes to world rankings but I find that we have a very even team and players that are capable of playing ‘up’, and they’re very dangerous. That’s why it’s a lot of fun to play with a team like this because we do have various options and I think if things do come together we’re capable of beating just about anyone.”
Come April, Guenthardt may also have the option of considering Timea Bacsinszky, a player who is currently working her way back up the rankings after a series of injuries left the former world No. 37 ranked in the high 400s as recently as last September. The 23-year-old featured in the doubles rubber in Bern and judging by her enthusiastic cheerleading from the team bench during the singles clearly relishes Fed Cup tennis.
“Timea would give us an additional option,” Guenthardt confirmed. “She’s been out for a long time and in practice you see that her footwork isn’t there yet to be able to play [Fed Cup] singles. Right now, she’s an option for doubles. Whether she’s an option for singles in two or three months’ time depends very much on how things go for her [in the coming weeks].”
For Belgium, they must now focus on winning their play-off to avoid falling into the zonal groups of the competition. As former champions - they lifted the trophy in 2001 - Devries knows the significance of maintaining their World Group II status.
“It’s important,” she said. “It’s important for any country. But we also know that it’s tough now. We have Yanina and Kirsten, and they’re a good team together with the younger girls, but if one of them can’t play it’s getting a lot tougher.”
The draws for the World Group and World Group II play-offs will be made on Wednesday.