BRATISLAVA, SLOVAK REPUBLIC: In 1993, four years after the remarkably calm overthrow of the Communist regime, the Czechs and Slovaks went their separate ways following 75 years as a united nation. But if the dissolution of Czechoslovakia is now referred to as the Velvet Divorce, one thing is certain: It will be gloves off when Slovak Republic hosts Czech Republic in their Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group first round clash this weekend.
Czechoslovakia won the Fed Cup five times, most recently in 1988. But since 1994, the Czechs have built a perfect 3-0 record against the Slovaks. However, this local derby has always been fiercely contested, and while the visitors are the nominal favorites again this time, there isn’t much to separate the teams rankings-wise. The sell-out crowd, which is expected to include at least 600 Czech fans, can look forward to another nail-biting encounter.
Spearheading the Czech side is the newest member of the world’s Top 20, Petra Kvitova, who rose to No. 18 last Monday. The 20-year-old has been one to watch for a few years now. But, while her claims to fame include being the lowest-ranked player ever to beat Venus Williams (she was No. 143 at the time) and reaching the semis at last year’s Wimbledon, lack of consistency has held the free-swinging lefty back. However, after winning her second WTA title at Brisbane, and reaching the last eight at the Australian Open, she seems ready to be a regular contender.
“I feel good, but I don’t really feel any different,” said the rising star, who plays 27th-ranked Dominika Cibulkova, whom she beat en route to the Brisbane title, in the second match on Saturday afternoon. Referring to the filial element of the weekend, she added: “We talk together, we are all friends, and it feels like home here, so it is nice.”
World No. 30 and Czech No. 2 Lucie Safarova – another lefty – also enjoyed a good swing Down Under. She reached the quarters at Brisbane and pushed Vera Zvonareva in the third round at Melbourne Park for her best Grand Slam result in two years. The winner of four WTA titles, she, too, has played some crackers in the past, but has not been helped by a tendency to injury. However, that appears to be behind her as she prepares to face Daniela Hantuchova in the opening rubber.
“I’m feeling healthy and strong, so I’m looking forward to the weekend,” said Safarova, who celebrated her 24th birthday today. “We all played really well at the Australian tournaments, so I hope that we will continue our good game here.”
While the Czechs have been Fed Cup semifinalists for the last two years, 2002 champions Slovak Republic are back in the World Group for the first time in seven years, thanks to a 3-2 defeat of Serbia last April. The heroine in that showdown was Hantuchova, who has been named to Slovakia’s No.1 slot, although Cibulkova passed her in the rankings this week.
While Hantuchova had a tough time in Australia – an Achilles scare forced her out of Brisbane, and she lost her openers in Sydney and Melbourne – she has experience on her side. Still only 27, she has played 31 singles rubber for her country, building a healthy 24-7 win-loss record. Between them Cibulkova, Kvitova and Safarova have played 35 singles rubbers.
“I’ve been in this situation before, so it’s true I know what to expect,” said Hantuchova, who is ranked No. 32 this week. “But every match is different, so we’ve got to be ready again to give it our best.
“We have a big rivalry in sports with the Czechs… it’s nice to play against them, but of course the motivation is there. I think they are the favorites in this tie, but we are playing at home, so maybe it’s 50:50.”
For her part, former No. 12 Cibulkova had a better January – a much-need boost after 18 months marred by injury and coaching changes. Following her loss to Kvitova in Brisbane she beat Caroline Wozniacki in Sydney for her first win over a reigning world No.1. Although the Dane restored order when the two met in the third round at Melbourne, 21-year-old Cibulkova had done enough to suggest she’s got her mojo back.
“I’m going to focus on every ball, and not think about who my opponent is or where they are from,” she said. “I heard the Czechs have bought a lot of tickets, so I hope we’re going to hear more loud support from our home fans!”
Down to the doubles?
Of course, rankings are only numbers, and track records can mean even less in Fed Cup. Although he was hugely encouraged by the performance of all his players in Australia, Czech captain Petr Pala says that not only would he not be surprised, he “wouldn’t mind if the tie goes down to a decisive doubles rubber.”
It’s not hard to see why. Hantuchova and her assigned partner, Magdalena Rybarikova, are assuredly fine exponents of the team discipline, but the Czech duo of Kveta Peschke and Barbora Zahlavova Strycova both collected silverware in Australia - albeit separately.
This week the veteran Peschke is riding high at No. 3 in the doubles rankings after lifting the trophy at Auckland and reaching the semis at the Australian Open with Slovenia’s Katarina Srebotnik. Meantime, Zahlavova Strycova, ranked No. 14 in doubles, won the Sydney crown with Iveta Benesova and showed good form in singles too, with a quarterfinal run at Brisbane and a third round showing at the Grand Slam.
The full draw is listed below.
R1: Daniela Hantuchova (SVK) v Lucie Safarova (CZE)
R2: Dominika Cibulkova (SVK) v Petra Kvitova (CZE)
R3: Daniela Hantuchova (SVK) v Petra Kvitova (CZE)
R4: Dominika Cibulkova (SVK) v Lucie Safarova (CZE)
R5: Daniela Hantuchova/Magdalena Rybarikova (SVK) v Barbora Zahlavova Strycova/Kveta Peschke (CZE)
Watch this tie live on: FedCup.tv
Dominika Cibulkova (SVK) - 04/02/2011
Daniela Hantuchova (SVK) - 04/02/2011
Captain Matej Liptak (SVK) - 04/02/2011
Petra Kvitova (CZE) - 04/02/2011
Lucie Safarova (CZE) - 04/02/2011
Captain Petr Pala (CZE) - 04/02/2011