BRATISLAVA, SLOVAK REPUBLIC: Handling pressure is as big a part of tennis as the backhands and forehands and Dominika Cibulkova and Ana Ivanovic both coped admirably in this respect in their Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group play-off tie in Bratislava, with the upshot that Slovak Republic and Serbia are all square at the end of the first day’s play.
The smallest player in the top 100 she may be, but Cibulkova has a big heart and she needed it to extricate herself and the Slovak Republic from the position they found themselves in nearly an hour into the opening singles rubber against 19-year-old Bojana Jovanovski.
By eventually winning 46 63 61 she passed the burden of pressure over to Ivanovic whose unbeaten run in Fed Cup singles suddenly went horribly awry against Russia 14 months ago when she lost both her singles rubbers and the doubles to boot.
The former world No. 1 is still in the process of re-establishing herself in the game and here she took another positive step along the way to doing so by comprehensively defeating Daniela Hantuchova 62 64 to keep Serbia very much in this tie.
“I was really nervous before going on court,” admitted Ivanovic. “But it’s good because it makes you push the limits and makes you more aware of certain things – sharper in a way – so I tried to make it work for me instead of against me and I managed to make it happen today. It was definitely one of my best performances in Fed Cup.”
A set and a break up against Cibulkova, young Jovanovski was totally justifying the surprise decision of Dejan Vranes, the Serbian captain, to select her ahead of the world No. 8 Jelena Jankovic – whatever the reason. Serbia was almost entitled to dream of ending its losing run against their opponents, even if the bigger dream of emulating the boys may still be a long way off.
Ranked No. 59 in the world, Jovanovski clearly has a big future in the game, even if she found herself unable to sustain her early excellence against her more experienced opponent. If she is at all receptive she will learn from this defeat.
It was a lesson to any aspiring youngster that in tennis you’re never beaten until the final point, although the fat lady was a long way from filling her lungs with air when Cibulkova turned things around. She declined to be drawn afterwards on who she expected to face in the reverse singles today, but her captain, Matej Liptak, was in no doubt that someone will be facing Jankovic – probably Hantuchova.
In the first set the Slovak No. 1 had found herself completely overwhelmed by the power of the tall Serbian girl, whose forehand is a frightening weapon - or at least it was in the first set, particularly her inside-out forehand.
It obviously wasn’t pure bravado when she said she believed she could win. She had been the heroine of Serbia’s World Group II win over Canada in February when she contributed all three points in a 3-2 win, which deservedly won her a Heart Award. The award for heart went to someone else here.
Having missed the local derby home defeat to Czech Republic in February with a groin injury, the Bratislava-born Cibulkova was determined to fire her country back into the elite group of women’s tennis. But before she could raise the spirits of the Sibamac Arena crowd she found herself rushing hither and thither around the court like a maid-servant in the service of an overly demanding mistress.
On top of that, her serve began to break down and in one game she served three double faults. The pressure and expectation of beating a player ranked 34 places beneath her became all too much for her, to the extent where she wished she was playing Jankovic.
It was then that she said she got angry with herself – although she used slightly more industrial language than that. Perhaps it was the sight of Jovanovski serving a couple of double faults while she held to go 2-0 up that made her feel better about herself.
Whatever the reason, the crowd, which had originally felt like a millstone around her neck, suddenly began to give her goose bumps and she was much more recognisable as the player who can count world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki among her victims this year.
She began hitting the ball with greater penetration and it was Jovanovski’s turn to be put to flight and get angry with herself – or what she called her “stupid” shots. It was far from a stupid performance by the youngster, who tired in the final set, even if Cibulkova was obviously the one now playing the smarter tennis.
Captain Dejan Vranes (SRB) - 16/04/11
Ana Ivanovic (SRB) - 16/04/11
Bojana Jovanovski (SRB) - 16/04/2011
Captain Matej Liptak (SVK) - 16/04/11
Dominika Cibulkova (SVK) - 16/04/2011