LLEIDA, SPAIN: France has a proud history of never having been relegated from the top tier of Fed Cup by BNP Paribas. But for the fourth year in a row the Frenchwomen find themselves hanging on to that fine record by their fingertips after their first round loss to Russia in February.
It very nearly wasn’t so: after the first day of play in Moscow, Alize Cornet and Virginie Razzano had built a shock 2-0 lead. But the Russians fought back and so to retain their place in the elite, the French must survive another World Group relegation play-off – this time against a savvy Spanish team playing on home ground.
While the two countries have met eight times and are locked at four wins apiece, the French have won the last three ties and haven’t succumbed to their southern neighbours since 1996. However, the Spaniards have had a bit more to sing about on tour of late, and deserve to be considered slight favourites this weekend.
The hosts, targeting a return to the World Group after a two year absence, are led by crafty lefty Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, who really came into her own when she won the WTA title at Rome last year. Most recently, Martinez Sanchez pushed Kim Clijsters to 6-4 in the deciding set in the third round at Miami, and if she brings that form to the red clay will be hard to stop.
“After Miami I focused on my physical training, and last week I chose to rest,” said the world No. 33, who is famed for her mix-it-up style of play. “Now I feel much better, and I’m ready to play this tie.
“I think there’s more pressure in Fed Cup, because you are playing for your country,” she added. “But these ties can give you more confidence for playing the rest of the season, especially for me on clay. I’m looking forward to it.”
The 28-year-old’s opponent in Saturday’s opening singles rubber will be Razzano – not Cornet, as Martinez Sanchez might have expected. Although former No. 12 Cornet has been climbing back up the rankings this year, and finally broke her Fed Cup duck with a stunning upset of Svetlana Kuznetsova in the first round, Escude has opted for experience over youth.
Although her current ranking of No.102 puts her 35 places below Cornet, 27-year-old Razzano has been switched into the No. 2 singles slot, with Aravane Rezai, ranked 24th, promoted to the top slot.
“It’s a difficult moment,” conceded Escude. “But we’ve been winning these play-offs and we hope this one will be exactly the same. It’s always hard to choose who to put on the court. But the weekend is long, and things might change on Sunday. All the girls have been working hard this week and I think they are ready.”
In any case, the second rubber will see Rezai face up to Anabel Medina Garrigues, another surprise choice – on paper, at least.
While Medina Garrigues has spent much of the last few years in the Top 30 and been as high as No. 16, she is currently down at No.62 after a slump in form in 2010. That makes her the Spanish No.3 at the moment, with veteran Lourdes Dominguez-Lino, who won the singles trophy at Bogota in February, the national No. 2 on a ranking of No.47.
“It was really, really hard to choose between Anabel and Lourdes,” said Spanish team captain Miguel Margets. “But it’s a good thing for the team when you have a lot of players to choose from.”
In her favour, Medina Garrigues boasts a considerably better record against elite players. For one thing, she is 1-0 against Rezai, although the match took place four years ago. Both players could be forgiven for hoping this encounter is easier than the last: Medina won the first set tie-break 17-15, and the match then went the distance.
“It’s been a difficult year,” said Rezai, whose form has suffered as a result of off-court issues and has a title defence looming in Madrid. “But I’m really proud to be representing France, and for me to be No. 1 is a big accomplishment. I just want to prove to my team that I am ready to fight tomorrow.”
Should the tie go down to the wire, Margets believes his doubles team could get the home side over the line. While he has named Dominguez-Lino and Nuria Llagostera Vives to take on Cornet and Pauline Parmentier, his squad of four have enjoyed considerable tournament success in various combinations.
The full draw is listed below.
R1: Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez (ESP) v Virginie Razzano (FRA)
R2: Anabel Medina Garrigues (ESP) v Aravane Rezai (FRA)
R3: Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez (ESP) v Aravane Rezai (FRA)
R4: Anabel Medina Garrigues (ESP) v Virginie Razzano (FRA)
R5: Lourdes Dominguez-Lino / Nuria Llagostera Vives (ESP) v Alize Cornet / Pauline Parmentier (FRA)
Watch the tie live on: FedCup.tv
Captain Juan Margets (ESP) - 15/04/2011
Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez (ESP) - 15/04/2011
Captain Nicolas Escude (FRA) - 15/04/2011
Aravane Rezai (FRA) - 15/04/2011