BESANÇON, FRANCE: France may have safely steered themselves away from the precipice here in Besancon, but their unassailable 3-0 lead in this Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group II play-off tie told only half the story.
What looked like a formality on day one for the two-time champion, when the Slovenian No. 1 Polona Hercog pulled out of the tie to the surprise of her own team-mates with a shoulder injury, turned out to be anything but.
Had Hercog’s tenacious last-minute stand-in Petra Rampre had just a fraction more self-belief in both her rubbers this tie could easily have gone to a fifth and final one in which few apart from the most diehard French fan would have bet against the Slovenian team, containing as it does one of the best doubles players in the world in Katarina Srebotnik.
As it was, Pauline Parmentier, the French No. 1, had to save two match points against Rampre before claiming victory for herself and her nation with a 64 36 86 win in the first of the reverse singles in two hours 50 minutes. Rampre had also been up a set and a break the previous day against Virginie Razzano.
It was the first time in Parmentier’s Fed Cup career that the 25-year-old had contributed two points towards her country’s cause, having beaten 17-year-old Nastja Kolar in straight sets on day one, and she was naturally proud of it as she and the rest of the team paraded two Tricolours around the court at the finish. Those points were never more welcome with Virginie Razzano’s fitness in question after cramping badly at the climax of her match the previous day.
In the event, Stephanie Foretz Gacon took Razzano’s place in the first of the dead rubbers, beating Kolar 76(6) 76(1) and a 5-0 scoreline that definitely flattered the French was completed when Kristina Mladenovic and Foretz Gacon beat Srebotnik and Rampre 64 63 in the doubles.
The first set between Parmentier and Rampre looked far too close to suggest that this match would finish in straight sets and sure enough the Slovenian took a 3-0 lead at the start of the second set. Both players exchanged further breaks before Rampre levelled at a set all.
The outcome of the deciding set was anyone’s guess. Certainly no-one would have guessed that there was almost a 100-place discrepancy in their rankings. Parmentier took a 4-2 lead only for Rampre to reel off three games in succession as the French girl’s forehand fluctuated between the sublime and the ridiculous.
“The ball she hits has no power but you have to go every time with the legs and if you are not really focussed you can make some stupid mistakes and get crazy in the head,” explained Parmentier. “She doesn’t have a good forehand or good service but here in the head she’s very strong.”
By her own admission, Rampre has a problem closing out matches but although she had two match points at 5-4 when serving, credit is due to Parmentier for sticking in there in a tense game to level on her third break point. By contrast, Parmentier was a picture of ruthless efficiency itself when her chance came, clinching the first of her three match points with an emphatic forehand winner.
Rampre is an interesting character. Life hasn’t dealt her the best of hands and some stress in her personal life some years ago led to her developing Alopecia universalis, which is a medical condition involving a rapid loss of all hair.
It hasn’t seemed to affect her demeanour and she cuts a lively, youthful little figure in her bandana which belies her 32 years, and is incredibly popular on the US tour where she spends much of her time driving from tournament to tournament. In the best Wimbledon spirit, she meets with triumph and disaster and treats those two impostors just the same. She also has a delightful one-handed backhand that only Justine Henin wouldn’t die for while she scrambles around the court much like the Belgian’s old nemesis Kim Clijsters. The game could do with a few more like her.
The French know a fighter when they see one and it was fitting that at the end of the tie after the doubles the fans should recognise Rampre's effort by holding up the name of “Petra” in large letters, something that regular France-watchers have never seen before.
Captain Nicolas Escude (FRA) - 22/04/2012
Captain Maja Matevzic (SLO) - 22/04/2012
Petra Rampre (SLO) - 22/04/12
Pauline Parmentier (FRA) - 22/04/12